Sunday, 5 February 2012

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

If there’s one way to turn me off a book, it’s to include some kind of ridiculous sci-fi element.

Before you reach for your pitchfork, hear me out: this doesn’t apply to all sci-fi. If a book sets out to be science fiction, I can generally handle that. Sci-fi in a science fiction novel, fine. I’ve not read much but what I have read, I haven’t hated.

But sci-fi sneaking its way into a novel that sets out to be a different genre? Ick. It’s why I didn’t really like Cloud Atlas, why Never Let Me Go rankled and why I found my sister’s story of Alegna, the ten-year-old alien living among us, annoying when I read it aged six. But it’s just one of the many reasons why I didn’t get on too well with The Blind Assassin.

Every single bit of the story that featured a stupid made-up word (which were probably anagrams that I couldn’t be bothered to solve), completely turned me off. And that was a real problem because the novel-within-the-novel was essentially a sci-fi story about another planet where the titular blind assassin resides, sandwiched within the pages of a book that hops about from newspaper reports to memoirs, anonymous story telling and a never-ending description of how dull it is to be old.

It’s a shame because the story is actually really good; the twist that (after a while) you can see coming is still a clever one and it’s clearly a skillfully written novel.

What The Blind Assassin definitely isn’t is fast-paced. The story, which begins with its climax, slowly idles its way into an explanation. It moves at approximately the same speed as its elderly protagonist, Iris, who spends half her time explaining how slowly she can move and the other half going to the toilet in a cafĂ© so she can read the graffiti. Like all stories, it’s ultimately about love and betrayal, love and abandonment, love and money.

The mysterious Laura Chase was a bit too bluntly drawn but still my favourite character, although bossy-boots housekeeper Reenie was also a crowd-pleaser.

Two bits stood out for me. First, about a quarter of the way through the book, Laura develops a fear of God and starts to worry about where exactly God is.

It was the Sunday school teacher’s fault: God is everywhere, she’d said, and Laura wanted to know: was God in the sun, was God in the moon, was God in the kitchen, the bathroom, was he under the bed? ... Laura didn’t want God popping out at her unexpectedly, not hard to understand considering his recent behaviour. …
Probably God was in the broom closet. It seemed the most likely place. He was lurking in there like some eccentric and possibly dangerous uncle, but she couldn’t be certain whether he was there at any given moment because she was afraid to open the door.

And around halfway through The Blind Assassin, Iris is on her honeymoon in Europe:

An old walrus-faced waiter attended to me; he had the knack of pouring the coffee and the hot milk from two jugs, held high in the air, and I found this entrancing, as if he were a child’s magician. One day he said to me – he had some English – “Why are you sad?”“I’m not sad,” I said, and began to cry. Sympathy from strangers can be ruinous.

Not sure exactly why I latched on to these two passages – probably because they contain feelings I’ve felt. I have definitely experienced the second, embarrassingly enough.

As I said during the doldrums of page 159, reading The Blind Assassin straight after Why DidI Ever probably didn’t do the former any favours – it was massively wordy by comparison, almost the polar opposite of Robison’s style (a couple of times I noticed clumsy, school-like phrases that I imagine Atwood regrets now). Although there were some overlapping themes – mental breakdown, misguided matches, abuse.

What it comes down to is that TBA just isn’t really to my current taste. It’s a bit too like Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen et al. But I’ll make a mental note to return to Atwood in five or ten years; I think I might enjoy her writing more then.

For now, I’m going to reward myself for getting through TBA by re-reading a favourite: Chris Bachelder’s Bear v. Shark.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Blind Assassin - thoughts from page 159

My main feeling on The Blind Assassin so far is that reading it straight after Why Did I Ever was a terrible mistake. To go from such sharp, concise prose to this wordy, meandering, slow-boil of a book is not exactly sitting well with me so far.

Two weeks in, and I don't give a hoot about Laura Chase and her vague notions of ownership or her tedious affair with a bit of rough. I don't care that Iris is old and alone. And I'm really really not interested in the blind assassin novel-within-a-novel-set-on-a-distant-planet.

But, while life's too short to sit through bad movies and books, I'm pretty sure a tipping point is just around the corner so I'm going to persevere. After all, Sian loved it, the Booker judges loved it and everyone on GoodReads seems to love it too. Come on, Atwood. Let's do this.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Why Did I Ever - Mary Robison

And lo, the first book of 2012 has been read (actually finished around 14 January).

If 2011 was the year of Amy Hempel, at least in my own personal library, 2012 may be the year of Mary Robison.

Why Did I Ever reads like it was written through Twitter, in short sharp bursts that are sometimes no more than a sentence long. It's almost a stream of consciousness but littered with flashbacks and inferences to events that are never fully explained. For example, the book's heroine - for she is, I think, a heroine - is called Money, but she can't be bothered to explain why.

Money is in crisis. Her cat is missing. Her boyfriend's a dick. Her list of exes is as long as her arm. Her boss is a bitch. Her daughter's an addict. Her son has been seriously abused. Her correspondence with Sean Penn remains one-sided.

The bite-sized snippets of her life meandering towards breakdown are really revelatory. So often while reading WDIE, I'd realise I knew something about the plot that Robison had never actually told me. How did I know so much? Because she's a master, that's how. I think perhaps she was secretly inside my head all along.

I don't want to spend too many words trying to describe Why Did I Ever, it doesn't seem to be in the spirit of the thing. Suffice to say I really enjoyed it, and I'm looking forward to reading it again knowing what I know now.

A favourite quote:
Mev is seated across from me. She looks painted by Degas tonight. It is a goulash of feelings I have for her just now. 
Next up: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. I'm 161 pages in and jeez louise is it slow going. 

Friday, 30 December 2011

2011: A retrospective

It may be the beginning of this blog but it's also the end of the year, so it's time to take a leaf out of every newspaper ever's book and create a list of things that happened in 2011 - by which I mean a list of books I read.

This isn't an exhaustive list because I'm not one for remembering things very well. Hey ho, 2012's inevitable list will be better.

The Beautiful and Damned - F. Scott Fitzgerald
This was tough going. It's pretty hard to care about characters so vacuous and dull. The best thing is that they all get old and poor and die. That's not a spoiler because it's basically in the title.

Tender is the Night - F. Scott Fitzgerald (still reading)
Probably should have read this before I gave The Beautiful and Damned a go, it's far better but the middle book is a bit of a yawn-fest. I now see who they modelled Don Draper on though (Dick Diver - even got the alliteration going on) and enjoyed learning about two fingers of gin being a different measure to what I though it was. Also 'Dicole' - the first instance of Brangelina style name-merging? Surely it is.

The Pale King - David Foster Wallace (still reading)
I started this in May despite (don't judge me) not yet having finished Infinite Jest. It's just as excellently dense, but you can kind of tell that DFW didn't finish it. Obviously masses and masses of care and attention and dedicated work and hours of trawling through manuscripts have gone into it, but I can't help feeling DFW would be a bit annoyed at us all reading his unfinished work.

Things the Grandchildren Should Know - that chap from Eels (re-read)
He's still the unluckiest man alive.

Harry Potter - J.K. Rowling (re-read)
I re-read these seven books at least once a year. Really wish they'd edited the last few more, but these are still wonderful, gripping stories - and now with added nostalgia.

On Beauty - Zadie Smith
Despite it obviously being some kind of homage to Howard's End, the borrowed narratives drove me mad and I never really warmed to the characters. I read this on the Kindle too, which doesn't leave me feeling particularly warm and fuzzy toward it.

Freedom - Jonathan Franzen
Another Kindle read, and weirdly similar to On Beauty in a lot of ways. Good read, didn't stay with me though. Actually, now I think about it that's not true - I have a very vivid picture of the cabin in the woods in my mind. The rest is a bit of a blank.

Howard's End - E. M. Forster
Loved this in all its frustrating familied glory. Stupid meddling aunt, silly selfish men, recklessly naive girls and excellent mysterious older woman, all beautifully drawn. I love it when a book feels contemporary even though it was written in another time (1910) and this does. Particularly good to read in a year where class lines were so boldly drawn, although I can't see the poor chap and his fat ex-hooker wife looting the local Footlocker no matter how bad things got.

Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen (re-read)
Weirdly similar to Howard's End.

The Summer Book - Tove Jansson
The Moomins Lady did other stuff! Who knew.

The Collected Short Stories - Amy Hempel (ADORED)
Hands down my favourite book of the year. How utterly heartbreakingly perfect Hempel's stories are. In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried is incredible. There isn't enough hyperbole in the world to explain how much I admire this woman's talent for revealing a story. I have plenty more to say about it but I'll save that for its own dedicated post. Hempel lectures at Harvard - as Liz Lemon would say, I want to go to there.

The Sound and the Fury - William Faulkner (loved)
I can't even begin to fathom how to write a book as amazingly as this. Weaving together all those view points and parts and being able to pull off stream of consciousness narration so masterfully for so many characters and still come out with a book that makes sense. It blows my mind a bit. And writing a character like Benjy - not just writing, but writing as him, was very impressive. I loved how as the book went on, things you'd read in the first chapters would click into place. Must re-read this book in 2012.

Fiesta: the Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway
Something I didn't tell you about The Sound and the Fury: I completely bought the incest story and missed the fact that it was a lie (er, spoiler alert). Not sure why, but I just didn't want to believe that Caddy was a regular slut. Not that being an incestuous sister is in any way better but at least it's different. Anyway, my point is this: perhaps I'm not the most attentive reader, which is why I thoroughly missed the whole castration thing in The Sun Also Rises. Thought the reason why Jake and Brett couldn't be together would become clear as the book progressed. Ah well.

My friend Lysann lent me this book, saying that she hated it so much she didn't want it back. I loved it - he's a very immersive writer and I felt like I'd been to Spain, I'd seen the bull fights, I'd perved on Romero. But it does move very slowly and, like a lot of American fiction from the same era, the characters aren't particularly likeable. So I can see why someone who likes tense European spy thrillers might not like it so much as I did.

Quarantine - Jim Crace
A book that read like a real writer had got his hands on a GCSE creative writing submission. But not in a good way. Also couldn't help but picture Jim Croce as I read it, but that's by the by.

Arlington Park - Rachel Cusk
Didn't care for this story much either, although there are flashes of utter brilliance in her prose. There's a wonderful passage where she likens school kids in the park to crows, for example. Not a major piece of observation but beautifully written. Mundane pieces of everyday life get a real going over, lending importance to the workaday. La-dee-da.

Survivor - Chuck Palahniuk
I'm not sure if this is what Palahniuk had in mind when he wrote Survivor, but it left me wanting to try out all the various Creedish cleaning tips from throughout the book. I admire Chuck Palahniuk's writing very much but Survivor left me a bit cold, to be honest. Put me in mind of school shootings stories, like that Jodi Picoult novel about the mother of the boy that shoots everyone, and Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland, which read like it was written for dummies.

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro
Very readable (unlike Ishiguro's Kafka-inspired novel The Unconsoled, which I also read a bit of this year but was too easily defeated by). Sadly I read this just after the film came out, so the characters were already stained with Keira and Carey. Haven't seen the film yet though. I like the idea of a literary sci-fi story. It also reminded me of the cyborg chapters from Cloud Atlas - all a bit GCSE grade writing.

The Informers - Bret Easton Ellis
Can't remember much of this, but it constantly put me in mind of Matt Dillon. (A good thing. Well, a good thing for my mind's eye, anyway.)

Vernon God Little - DBC Pierre
Just a few years behind the curve on this one - excellent stuff...

Lights Out in Wonderland - DBC Pierre
...which is why I was so excited to read this straight after. Disappointing! Although, obviously, I don't just want old DBC to churn out more of the same, Lights Out felt like a bit of a sprawling mess. The storyline was a bit juvenile too, although I liked the concept of consequence-less last days before killing yourself. There was a whole section that was a bit "What the what? Where did that come from?"

Seriously though, what? And where? And, crucially, why?

Hour Game - David Baldacci
A lot of people really like Baldacci. Sadly, I am not one of them. Terrible stuff - not Dan Brown terrible, but not far off. Sentences that read like a five-year-old wrote them, telling not showing, paper-thin story, obvious villains (just look for the two characters that seem flawless until the final third of the book - um, spoiler. Sorry) and hilariously awful dialogue. Non merci.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake - Aimee Bender
Someone sent this to me for free so I thought I'd read it. The concept is a weird one - a kid can taste the emotions of the cook in all her foods - and it didn't ever really come together. It's another almost literary sci fi book (like Never Let Me Go), but certain elements just started and then abruptly stopped which wasn't very satisfying. And a really major plot point was just plonked in and took the book in a really odd direction. Structurally, it felt messy. Much like this section of this blog post. Don't get me wrong, there were a lot of good things about Lemon Cake, including its well observed picture of troubled family life. It just didn't really carry off the less realistic elements of its story.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - John Le Carre
Shamefully, I did read this after I'd seen the film. Thankfully they're both excellent, although I'd have liked to have read the book without knowing what was going to happen. Calling Smiley Smiley was a masterstroke. Like Hemingway, Le Carre makes it feel like you're there in the Circus or you're on location in Prague and you're somehow involved, even if you're actually on a delayed, over-crowded South Eastern train into London Victoria.

The Promise of Happiness - Justin Cartwright
Can barely remember this one. I think it's about a girl that's been in prison for art forgery in New York and her home coming to her family in Cornwall? Something like that anyway.

A Game of Thrones - George R. R. Martin
Not the world's best-written book but quite gripping. Basically Brian Jacques' Redwall series for grown-ups. Includes such gems as this:

The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
I usually trust the narrator too much but in The Remains of the Day it seemed pretty obvious that this puffed up little butler was bending the truth quite a bit. It's so hard to keep reading a book when you don't really like any of the characters, but I managed to stick this one out and, weirdly, would quite like to see the film. Ishiguro nailed the tone brilliantly too.