Thursday, 30 September 2010

update September 2010

# of books read in September: 3 (epic fail)
Cumulative total: 40

1. The Blessing (Nancy Mitford)
2. The Plato Papers (Peter Ackroyd)
3. The Hours (Michael Cunningham)
4. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows)
5. Love in a Cold Climate (Nancy Mitford)
6. En passant (Raymond Queneau)
7. The Story of God (Robert Winston)
8. Ye Gods! Travels in Greece (Jill Dudley)
9. The Man in the High Castle (Philip K Dick)
10. La Chine Classique (Ivan P Kamenarovic)
11. White Teeth (Zadie Smith)
12. The House in Norham Gardens (Penelope Lively)
13. Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Marisha Pessl)
14. Sarah's Key (Tatiana de Rosnay)
15. Rebuilding Coventry (Sue Townsend)
16. On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan)
17. The Undomestic Goddess (Sophie Kinsella)
18. French Kissing (Catherine Sanderson)
19. Icons of England (various authors; edited by Bill Bryson)
20. Shirley (Charlotte Brontë)
21. Women's Hour Short Stories
22. Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)
23. Juliet, Naked (Nick Hornby)
24. Reviving Ophelia (Mary Pipher)
25. Nightingale Wood (Stella Gibbons)
26. The Orange Girl (Jostein Gaarder)
27. Me Talk Pretty One Day (David Sedaris)
28. Gemma and Sisters (Noel Streatfeild)
29. See Under: Love (David Grossman)
30. Swann's Way (Marcel Proust)
31. Le roi des fougères (Jean Anglade)
32. The Decameron (Giovanni Boccaccio)
33. The Glass Room (Simon Mawer)
34. Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides)
35. Missykad, or Britannic Raj Through The Turnstiles (Malcolm Henry James)
36. Where We Going, Daddy?: Life With Two Sons Unlike Any Other (Jean-Louis Fournier)
37. First Grey, Then White, Then Blue (Margriet de Moor)
38. The Dead School (Patrick McCabe)
39. The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde)
40. My Favourite Wife (Tony Parsons)

Sunday, 19 September 2010

My Favourite Wife (Tony Parsons)

--The blurb--
"Hot shot young lawyer Bill Holden and his wife Becca move their four-year-old daughter to the booming, gold-rush city of Shanghai. It is a place of opportunity and temptation, where fortunes are made and foreign marriages come apart in spectacular fashion. Bill's law firm houses the Holden family in Paradise Mansions - a luxury apartment block full of 'second wives': beautiful young women like JinJin Li, ex-school teacher, crossword addict, dedicated roller skater and the Holdens' neighbour. After Becca witnesses a near-tragedy, she returns temporarily to London with Holly - and Bill and JinJin are thrown together. Bill wants to be a better man than the millionaire who keeps JinJin Li as a second wife. Better than any man who cheats. Becca is his best friend. But in the end can he give JinJin anything different - can he give her the love she deserves? And can he love his wife too?"

--The review--
Tony Parsons, while arguably having not achieved the same level of fame as contemporary Nick Hornby, is in his normal state essentially him + 1. Sentimental and humorous in equal measure, he is able to blow readers out of the water with the poetry, quality, and depth of his expression. In fact, he almost makes budding writers want to give up because they feel that they could not produce anything of this calibre themselves.

However, in My Favourite Wife, Parsons does not live up to the reputation built up with novels such as Man and Boy. While his main focus previously was the family saga that everyone could relate to, told in ways never broached before, in My Favourite Wife Parsons' main agenda seems to be a social analysis of modern China. This marginalises the family aspects of the novel and inadvertently makes us care less about the characters. Even though the author admittedly handles the narrative arc well, building up Bill's respective relationships with his wife, lover and daughter effectively, reaching the climax of discovery and then bringing it down to a more subdued calmness, the constant chopping and changing between the personal and political prevents us from getting too involved, and this is ultimately to the detriment of the novel's efficacy.

Parsons is better when he returrns to doing what he does best in chronicling the decline and death of Bill's father: these segments are moving, heartfelt, realistic, and pack more of a punch than the other sections of the novel, which are punctuated by episodes of contrived symbolism and imagery, as well as a general feeling of predictability. Less effective than the parts regarding Bill's father is the demise of Bill's colleague Shane: there are perhaps too many characters, and we cannot give enough attention to them all, meaning that we do not care enough when it actually matters. As a consequence, My Favourite Wife lacks the wow-factor of Parsons' previous novels: it still has strengths, but these are outweighed by the weaknesses, and these strengths are therefore not enough to make the book a resounding success.

Other works by Tony Parsons
The Kids (1976)
Platinum Logic (1981)
Limelight Blues (1983)
Man and Boy (1999)
One for my Baby (2001)
Man and Wife (2003)
The Family Way (2004)
Stories We Could Tell (2006)
Starting Over (2009)
Men From The Boys (2010)

Monday, 13 September 2010

The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde)

--The blurb--
"Enthralled by his own exquisite portrait, Dorian Gray exchanges his soul for eternal youth and beauty. Influenced by his friend Lord Henry Wotton, he is drawn into a corrupt double life; indulging his desires in secret while remaining a gentleman in the eyes of polite society. Only his portrait bears the traces of his decadence."

--The review--
Wilde is well-known, even by those who have never read a single one of his works, for his witty epigrams, his controversy, and his pretentious foppery, but the superficial knowledge of these things, as I have discovered, can never really tally with that of which Wilde is in fact capable.

To begin with, The Picture of Dorian Gray does not do much to convince readers (especially Wilde virgins) of the genius for which the author is so greatly reputed. While it is irreverent and witty, this is more of the Jane Austen style of witticism rather than being of the variety that will have you rolling in the aisles. The humour present in the work also matches well with that found in Restoration comedies and comedies of manners, but in conjunction with this, there is also the impression that Wilde is deliberately out to offend, which is a proposition that can leave a bit of a bad taste in your mouth.

Another Wildean weakness is his repeated attempt to philosophise. His lengthy expositions simply cannot match the ancient philosophers that he apparently tries to emulate and they thus fall flat. The highly metacritical purpose for which Wilde is aiming merely serves to appear pretentious and affected, although it does comply with his preface. The reader is therefore not seduced yet, and this continues: while there are occasional phrases of excellent poetic value, on the whole Wilde's dialogue wanders, the reader is easily distracted as a result, and Wilde's work consequently seems overrated. He is aphoristic and trying too hard, and yet at times strikes a strangely relevant chord: the notion that "[a]s long as a woman can look 10 years younger than her own daughter, she is satisfied" is oddly reminiscent of certain modern TV shows.

The Vane family is initially a million times more engaging than Dorian and his dandyish counterparts, and it appears that Wilde is better when being more down to earth, versus aiming at being a pompous philosopher. This is further consolidated by his mad and purposeless ramblings later on in the novel, which make it easier to see why abridged versions of the work exist. However, despite the author's unsettling anti-Semitism, and despite the manifold other possible criticisms, by this point we have forgiven Wilde completely. His Poe-like tale of conscience has an exact and penetrating ability to captivate the audience, with the story quickly gaining momentum. We are absorbed by Dorian's descent into madness and Wilde's foreshadowing; we gasp at the characters' fates and marvel at the role of the portrait, which is highly similar to Charlotte Gilman Perkins' yellow wallpaper. The single object in combination with the character of Dorian and his relationships with others is a potent mix, and it is this mix that woos the previously unaware reader over to Wilde. An explosive opus that makes us love Wilde despite his flaws.

Other works by Oscar Wilde
The Happy Prince and other stories (1888)
Lady Windermere's Fan (1892)
A Woman of No Importance (1893)
An Ideal Husband (1895)
The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)
De Profundis (1897)
The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898)

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Bookish Bits & Bobs: The Booker Prize Shortlist 2010

So following my previous post about this year's Booker longlist, I found myself thinking "Hey, wouldn't it be nice if I could be right this year about the winner?"

In truth, my track record is not too good on this score. In 2004, I really felt (and for once, the bookies did too) that David Mitchell was set to win with Cloud Atlas. I was absolutely shocked when Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty took it instead, and, furthermore, felt that all was not as it seemed with the choice of this particular book as the winner. It all seemed a little too convenient that the first openly gay author to win the prize was awarded it in the first year that an openly gay cabinet minister was on the judging panel. The controversy surrounding my views in the uni rag at this time means that it is perhaps unsurprising that I can't remember much else about the Booker Prizes that followed (except to comment on the breathtakingness of Kate Grenville's The Secret River, shortlisted for the 2006 prize, which makes your heart skip a beat right from the first page). In the 2009 round of the competition, I had lowered my expectations of my psychic abilities and only desired that it was NOT Sarah Waters who won (thankfully, on this score I was right).

Despite this admittedly weak history, though, I was still disappointed to find that against my prediction, David Mitchell had been culled from this year's longlist, not making it through to the final six. Turning my attention to those that had been chosen, the selection seemed disappointing. You've got your token post-colonial novel, and your typical novel based on recent news (Emma Donoghue's Room has uncanny resemblance to the case of Jaycee Lee Dugard and her children). The other nominations seem equally lacklustre, with the exception of the only one to light my fire, Tom McCarthy's C, which seems the most original, ambitious and unconventional.

The issue that has most characterised this year's Booker for me has been the bias and engineering that I see in the selections. As I mentioned in my previous post, the bookies rushed to put the strongest odds on Peter Carey's offering as soon as the press made a story of the fact that if he won this time he would be the only person to ever do so three times. These, to me, are not grounds to win in themselves, but now that the seed has been planted in the minds of the judges and in the minds of those who bet on these prizes, it is sure, whether consciously or unconsciously, to have an influence. If it does win, I shall be extremely sceptical about whether Carey actually deserved it.

The other novel which I now reject on principle as a "worthy winner" is The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson, thanks to Giles Coren's article on this author's shortlisted novel in this weekend's Times. I suspect he meant to attract people to the author's work, but sadly, Mr Coren, you have failed with me. The principal reason that Coren gave for Jacobson to win was that he is a Jewish author, and only the second to ever be shortlisted for the prize. No Jewish author has ever won it, and this, in Mr Coren's view, almost entitles him to win. Sorry, but no. Nobody should win any prize based on gender, age, race, sexuality, ethnicity, or for any other reason other than them being worthy of winning it. And that is it. Coren's proposition alone turns me off Jacobson's nomination entirely, which seems a shame in some ways.

In sneakily previewing what I could procure of this year's shortlist online, Carey's novel has personality and pretension but lacks vigour. The vast majority of the other nominations are not even available for preview. Is Amazon biasing readers and judges before the prize is even decided?

The only other novel I could take a sneak peek at from the shortlist was Andrea Levy's The Long Song, which sadly seemed contrived and arresting in a combination that is not altogether comfortable. My hope therefore remains for now with C; and as ominous as it sounds, we shall see.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Vote for me!

Search For a Simple Star
Vote for me
Vote for Angelil to be the Simple Star
Visit their Simple Star profile here

Get me out of that top 50 and into that top 10!

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Bookish Bits & Bobs: Roald Dahl Day

A day celebrating the life and works of one of Britain's greatest children's authors, Roald Dahl, is being commemorated all around the UK (and indeed the world - why not?!) on September 13, the birthday of the magnificent man himself. It is rare of me to do two columns in one month (which is what will happen this September due to the release of the Booker shortlist), but Roald Dahl Day seemed to me to be too good to pass up. And with events going on all over the place on the day itself, there's no reason why anybody should have to pass it up: according to the Times, fans can enjoy everything from a musical version of Matilda in Wolverhampton to a quiz on the author at the Bishop's Stortford branch of Waterstones, as well as usual and added delights of the Roald Dahl Museum in Great Missenden (including a sweet-making workshop - do you really need to be persuaded?!). The website gives more info on all of these.

But it all got me thinking about the author who captured - and continues to capture - children's imaginations around the world. While other children's authors have come under fire for being politically incorrect, classist, racist, or just generally outmoded, Dahl's books seem immune to such criticism (or, indeed, criticism of any other kind). So why is he different?

While the lives of other children's authors have attracted interest, Dahl arguably surpasses them all in having a life as fascinating and at times as gruesome as the books that he wrote. He was a sportsman and an art aficionado; a traveller and a Hollywood luvvie; a serviceman and and a scientist; an oenologist and a philanthropist, as well as a writer. No other children's author can claim ownership of autobiographies as intriguing and readable as Boy and Going Solo, which can be enjoyed by children and adults alike for their descriptions of his various scrapes in school and in the armed forces. This all leads on to the obvious: people do not abandon his work once they have passed a certain age. Dahl is somehow able to keep people consistently entertained throughout their lives - readers return to his children's books for nostalgia purposes, but start on his short stories and autobiographies as teenagers and keep coming back to those as well, with them being just as addictive as his children's books.

So that's what makes people stay, but why do they come to him to begin with? Quentin Blake's unforgettable illustrations, and (some of) the movies and TV adaptations made of his works, certainly contribute to the sustained interest in his books. But people pick up one book after another regardless of age, because as well as being a master of dark twists and deft prose, Dahl does not patronise children. Even though he plays on the themes that appeal to children, such as outsmarting adults, talking animals, and the child winning through in the end, Dahl is able to mix the magic and the tragic eclectically in a way that makes him unique. He does not shy away from scaring children with evil witches and man-eating giants, just as much as he does not shy away from delighting them. Equally, the suspense that is built, in conjunction with creating characters we can care about, keeps people coming back.

His dexterous use of language is also worth mentioning twice - The BFG is perhaps a prime example of Dahl's imaginative and amusing wordplay, and it is perhaps therefore even more astonishing that Dahl's books have been successful the world over in spite of the problems that they must have posed for translators. More than this, too, Dahl's own creations encourage children to create for themselves. Among the fond memories of my childhood are games with my sister where we used cucumber for snozzcumbers and lemonade for frobscottle, and while other books also penetrated my childhood in this way (re-enacting scenes from Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden using Sylvanian Families springs to mind), they perhaps lacked Dahl's winning combination of fantasy, reality, and originality. (As far as my love of The Secret Garden went, there were plenty of other Victorian and Edwardian works of literature that I could - and did - turn to for little-girl-lost style stories, but nothing comes to mind that is quite like the universes that Dahl created.)

All of this amounts to something quite simply indescribable. It was this uncapturable sentiment felt towards Dahl and his work that somehow led to me bursting into tears a few years ago during a documentary about his life. The combination of the remarkable man with his remarkable work has something really moving about it. But the good thing about successful authors is that they never really die, living on in their works. Ars longa, vita brevis, as they say. In my world at least, every day is Roald Dahl Day.

The Dead School (Patrick McCabe)

--The blurb--
"By the author of "The Butcher Boy", a novel shortlisted for the 1992 Booker Prize. This is the story of Malachy Dudgeon and Raphael Bell, and how the loss of a loved one destroyed their lives."

--The review--
Irish literature, perhaps most famously popularised by Frank McCourt in recent years, often carries a rawness that is not replicated in literature from other countries.  In some ways this is accounted for by its painful history, but the rest of the magical mix is something mysterious and somehow undefinable. This is not to say that Ireland does not produce bad authors, but thankfully for readers, Patrick McCabe is not one of them. He employs a potent combination of poetry and violence in his prose in a way that makes for mindblowing reading, and as a whole, the short chapters and vivid characters contribute to the creation of something compelling and special.

Some reviewers of the novel have found humour in it, but while this is another common characteristic of Irish literature, any humour existing in the novel was lost on me. It is descriptive, harrowing and uplifting in equal measure, confronting reality from multiple vantage points, but humour - even of the black variety - did not seem to feature. 

However, The Dead School is no poorer for this. Malachy and Raphael's respective descents into madness were realistically portrayed and McCabe is equally good at dream sequences, at delineating the frustrations of being a teacher, and at documenting the consequences triggered by various Irish troubles. The author's chosen themes run through the book consistently, not only linking the personages and relationships in the book but also providing a unified framework for the narrative, hooking the reader in a variety of ways. The fabulous relationship between Malachy and Marion is particularly engrossing, filled with laughter and making the reader believe that this is how all relationships should be, and allowing us to hope that their relationship will not meet a sad and violent politically-motivated demise à la Jonathan Coe's Malcolm and Lois, despite the author's various hints to the contrary (McCabe's foreshadowing and hints, incidentally, form another of the long list of his strengths). 

It is therefore surprising that having been a regular face on the scene of contemporary Irish literature since the mid-1980s, McCabe is not better known - and, furthermore, that he has not been shortlisted for any major literary prizes since the 1990s. Those who do not know his work are missing out on The Dead School for its memorable imagery and characters, as well as its major themes of love, loss, change and transience. Life lessons are provided without preaching, and in addition to this, McCabe supplies the wow-factor almost effortlessly. It is to be hoped that perhaps in years to come, the author will continue to turn out books of high calibre - whether or not they catapult him into the spotlight.
Other works by Patrick McCabe
The Adventures of Shay Mouse (1985)
Music on Clinton Street (1986)
Carn (1989)
The Butcher Boy (1992)
Breakfast on Pluto (1998)
Mondo Desperado (1999)
Emerald Germs of Ireland (2001)
Call Me The Breeze (2003)
Winterwood (2006)
The Holy City (2009)