Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Reading Writing

I'm not in the mood, really, but thought I'd post some quick thoughts on my recent reading. It's always useful to look back on this blog as a sort on repository of memories - it is mostly talking to myself after all. The following are reviews from my Shelfari page and are more aides de memoire than anything else.

Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" - John Lydon, 1978

The Bridge of San Luis Rey - Thornton Wilder

A brief, beautifully written masterpiece which strikes me as a forefather of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mary Lavin. Full of quotable sentences and a testament to the love that gives meaning to life.

The Eggman's Apprentice - Maurice Leitch

With an unreliable narrator who parallels those of Pat McCabe in more than his Northern accent this is a wonderful trawl through the byways of the pre 'Troubles' Northern Ireland. Our hero, Hugo, is an orphan whose life takes him from poverty into the kingdom of the Eggman, a gangster who is driven around in a large cadillac. Rural poverty and the corruption of power are both drawn but it is the voice of the aspiring megalomaniac Hugo that bewitches. Descriptions are often startling in their originality and clarity. Recommended - and I'll be looking out for other books by Maurice Leitch.

Titus Groan - Mervyn Peake

A strange dreamlike world full of clockwork characters. The dead hand of tradition lays across the castle like a layer of dust and light often serves only to highlight the shadows.
Reminds me of a very elaborate clock with figures emerging and disappearing into the vastnesses of Gormenghast, the enormous, ageless castle of the Groans.
I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy

The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga

Our narcissistic and highly unreliable narrator, Balram, relates the story of his life to the Chinese premier, who is coming to India. He sees himself as the future of India, his escape from the 'Darkness' an exemplary parable to be followed by the masses if they wish to burst out of the 'rooster coop' and become masters, and not servants.
His picture of the world he inhabits allows us to sympathise with whatever he needs to do to escape. As a psychopath in a psychopathic world his story raises the question (with apologies to RD Laing) if this is a sane response to the insanity of the world.
For whatever Balram may do to gain his freedom, what is it to what is being done in the name of progress or corporate profit? What is the moral difference between the dead poor and the dead rich? The rich have to be recorded but the poor don't.

Washington Square - Henry James

A domestic espionage novel where almost all the characters are trying to manipulate the others and hiding their true motives.
In the end most of them reap the rewards of their actions and we are shown the dangers of inflexibly clinging to our own beliefs.
Beautifully wrought sentences and sense of low key but inevitable tragedy.
Loses a star for being more admirable than engaging

Sirius - Olaf Stapledon

Although at times stilted and the sense of time somewhat confused this is an original and thought provoking book, finding the alien in man's best friend and imagining how we would look to such an intimate outsider.

Talk of the Town - Ardal O'Hanlon

I was surprised to see the first novel from Irish comedian Ardal O'Hanlon included in the 1001 Books to Read before You Die and it gave me the impetus to take it down from the shelf. Ardal himself makes a brief appearance in the book - "The comedians were all useless except for one lad from Monaghan, a pale skinny fellow who was very droll."
The book is funny and true to bedsit life in 80's Dublin, a life I had some first hand experience of. Indeed there is much in here that sounds like a night of anecdotes and asides in a Dublin pub of the era and a few incidences from my own misspent youth seem to have made their way in here. Odd. I don't remember meeting Ardal at the time;) - (but I don't remember an awful lot from the time, something to do with alcohol perhaps.)
I read the book in a couple of sittings and enjoyed it but felt that there were some inconsistencies with the voice of the main narrator. It had that flaw of many first novels with incidences that didn't move the story anywhere being included and some asides included that clearly came from Ardal's routines and weren't true to the narrative voice.
The book also owes a big debt to Pat McCabe's The Butcher Boy (in which Ardal had a part) and McCabe has written better books not on the 1001.
The book is funny though and would probably seem more original to someone who wasn't there at the time. Three and a half stars.

Love - Toni Morrison

It is a long time since I read anything by Toni Morrisson and the cover reviews on Love suggested that this would stand up with her early work. However I found large parts of this overly schematic and some of the 'wisdom' almost trite. The parallels with Jane Eyre are often more of a driving force than character.
The juggling of multiple characters and timelines to build the narrative arc is impressive but in order to be really affected by juggling there has to be some risk to the juggled. I didn't feel that there was sufficient jeopardy for the characters as the world they inhabited seemed to be one where the most awful events could be subsumed into a haze of homespun 'philosophy'. This is despite the terrible nature of some of the events described.
The ambition seems to be to explore all aspects of 'love' but I was left feeling that many aspects were introduced but without feeling that I had learnt a huge amount about them. The tone also seemed to slip at times between coarse and coy.
I think I will have to go back and read one of Morrison's early novels to remind myself of the sweep of talent that initially blew me away. However there were enough ideas and passages of fine writing to keep me engaged with the book and to justify three stars. Reading in closer conjunction to Jane Eyre might also help deepen the experience of this novel.

The Bottle Factory Outing - Beryl Bainbridge

Darkly funny comedy of manners, with a cast of characters who can't afford them. Like a naughty seaside postcard or a BBC seventies sitcom but with a sinister undercurrent.
Reminds me a little of Dostoevsky's A Nasty Story - mixing your classes can lead to disaster. Add some wine and brandy and it's a fatal cocktail.


  1. Yes, The Bottle Factory Outing is a definite for the future. It's the darkness that appeals to me - plus, your line about the fatal cocktail is very intriguing.

    1. Again, I wholeheartedly recommend it. This was the book that turned me on to Bainbridge. I look forward to rereading it when I've finished reading all her books.