Five flash book reviews

(FreeDigitalPhotos.net pannawat)
(FreeDigitalPhotos.net pannawat)

I’m just getting over a bad dose of reading fever (feeling better now, thanks) and thought I’d share a few short reviews of the books that have been keeping me glued to the screen and page over the past couple of weeks. It’s an eclectic mix so there should be something for everyone here.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
Each chapter is written from the point of view of a different character, all connected in some way to an English-language newspaper in Rome over four decades. It’s funny, it’s tragic, it’s superbly plotted. The setting is lovely. Loss and loneliness feature prominently and the relationships are complex and fascinating. Rachman has a wonderful satirical touch which he applies lightly, poking fun in the right places. I think I’ve found my book of the year. Thanks for the recommendation Nicki Chen. Anyone who has worked in journalism will get a special kick out the novel but it’s in no way written for a clique. I’ll be pushing this hard at my book club next month. Going to start buying votes now.

His overarching goal at the paper is indolence, to publish as infrequently as possible, and to sneak away when no one is looking. He is realizing these professional ambitions spectacularly.
He opens a manila folder so that, if anyone happens past, he can flutter sheets and mutter “Preparedness!” which seems to put most people off.


The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

I borrowed this book from a friend after attending a scintillating talk by the author in Zurich in May. I’ll admit I was a little put off by the heavy intellectual fabric of the novel. The paperback travelled with me to Ireland and back, by car and ferry – unread. I finally started it a month ago and did what is normally unheard of for me – I alternated it with other books. Indeed The Blazing World is probably to blame for this bout of reading fever as I kept fleeing to other books for light relief.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, in the way you might enjoy trekking through the jungle with a machete. I loved the premise of the disillusioned old artist who tries to hit back at the New York art establishment by colluding with three male artists to pass off her work as theirs. Like The Imperfectionists the book is polyphonic, written in the voices of about a dozen different characters. The different accounts are assembled and presented in the style of an academic work, complete with footnotes (I’ll be a long time getting over those footnotes), cleverly building to a full revelation of what went wrong with Harriet Burden’s plan. I’m not sure I liked the format but this book, but the questions it raises about ageing, gender roles, art and psychological scars will resonate for a long time.

I want to blaze and rumble and roar.
I want to hide and weep and hold on to my mother.
But so do we all.

Trespass by Rose Tremain

Something completely different. I don’t even remember how I came into possession of this book but I do remember starting it and abandoning it last year. Last week, burning with fever, I found it in among the children’s books and rescued it. Since I finished the book I looked up Rose Trumain and it turns out she is a prolific prize-winning writer, quite the maestro. Set in the arid Cévennes region of France, this cracking whydunnit is a dark portrait of the terror of early old age, unhealthy sibling ties and psychological scars galore. She uses the landscape brilliantly to help build the atmosphere of oppression and dread. And oh the malice that the characters feel for each other! Not to be read by anyone considering a move to warmer climes to buy that dreamy old stone house surrounded by wizened vines. This book will kill the dream.

A Better Man by Leah McLaren

I was hooked when I heard about the plot of this book in a review on Anne Goodwin’s blog. Man wants to divorce his wife and mother of their twin children. Realises it will cost too much because she has become a deeply dissatisfied (and neglected) stay-at-home mother. Decides to fake a complete change in his behavior to being loving and supportive to make things more advantageous for the divorce. Ends up becoming a better man by behaving like one. But will it save the marriage? I couldn’t sympathise with either of the two spoilt main characters (he runs a groovy adverstising agency, she is an ex-lawyer turned neurotic mother with full-time nanny and chip on shoulder). This was ok because we were mostly watching them suffer. It felt a bit like writing by numbers but I kept reading to see where she would take the story. The twins featured quite a lot but I didn’t feel the child characters came off the page. The perfect South American nanny was also a cardboard cut-out. Despite all the negative things I’m saying it was very readable. Proof of the power of a strong central story idea.

In the Sea there are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda

This book should be compulsory reading for every citizen of Europe over the age of ten. It is a fictional treatment of the true story of Enaiatollah, a young man who made a remarkable five-year journey from Afghanistan to Italy where he finally managed to claim political asylum aged fifteen. The author met Enaiatollah and was so intrigued by his story he wanted to write it as a novel. If you want to know how it feels to be an illegal immigrant risking your life crossing seas and borders, this book will bring that experience alive like no other. So compelling. It also gives valuable insight into the push factors driving the undocumented ever onwards – misery upon misery in the transit countries.

All in all a highly enjoyable run of reading. I’m glad the fever struck when it did. In other reading news, I received an e-reader as a gift earlier this year and I’m very happy with the transition. The score for the above list: E-reader versus paper book – 3: 2. And I finally joined Goodreads, a great resource for readers and writers. Hope to see some of you there.

What’s your reading news?

Siri Hustvedt ablaze in Zurich

76_Siri%20Hustvedt-The%20Blazing%20World%20jacket

Siri Hustvedt is a literary legend and the owner of a brilliant mind, two reasons why I had to go and see her reading in Zurich yesterday. The old Schauspielhaus theatre was packed but it was not an occasion to sit back and be entertained.

It is customary for Hustvedt to throw out a rapid succession of philosophical references and intriguing ideas so that to listen to her speak involves a certain amount of mental gymnastics.

The New York writer had some interesting things to say about memory and imagination, and their link with creativity. Visualising the future and remembering the past are an essential part of being human but imagination is required for both, she said, just as imagination is required to create art.

Because the imagination is involved in recalling experiences, what we remember is not always reliable. “Every time we retrieve a memory it is open to revision,” Hustvedt told the audience.

Before I had a chance to crumble into a heap of self-doubt, questioning every memory I hold dear, Hustvedt had moved on to talk about the fact that creativity comes from play. Not to be able to play is pathological, she said, because play is an indispensable part of our existence.

So when we’re writing we’re playing? That makes perfect sense, especially when I think of the way my youngest daughter plays, completely immersed in creating worlds and characters.

I loved Hustvedt’s description of what novelists do. “We put on masks and discover, go to places we didn’t know.” What we find can be surprising or even disturbing.

Hustvedt believes we are all strangers to ourselves and, “artists confront that strangeness more often than other people”.

The appearance in Zurich was part of a promotional tour for the German translation of Siri Hustvedt’s latest book, The Blazing World. The book tells the story of an embittered New York artist late in her career who decides to take revenge on the misogynistic art world by passing off her creations as the work of three male artists. They receive the massive acclaim that the same exhibitions would not have garnered for her but things do not go according to plan when she tries to assert her claim to the work.

Hustvedt is very eloquent in her attacks on sexism and misogyny, whose imprint can be seen all the way back to Socrates, she explained. On my way home I wondered why it meant so much to me to see such a towering female intellect in action. People like Siri Hustvedt are there to banish any lingering doubt that women might not be as brilliant as men. Because, sadly that doubt does still linger in a world so utterly in thrall to male achievement.

Not only does Hustvedt question the expectations of gender, she also finds the notion of self problematic. “We all demonstrate in our daily lives a plurality of selves.” This plurality makes it all the easier for Hustvedt to inhabit the characters she creates, as long as that happens within a safe creative space she calls the “aesthetic frame”.

As for her writing habits, Hustvedt writes every day except Sunday. She finds novels harder to write and periodically reads back over the book to make sure “the rhythm is right”. If it’s not right she’ll delete the last section. This approach is at odds with the keep-writing-never-look-back advice I’ve often read for first drafts. But the most important rule in writing fiction is to do what works for you.

Speaking of the plurality of selves, The Blazing World is told in the voices of twenty narrators, a technique that Donal Ryan also used in his breakthrough success The Spinning Heart. Coincidentally, it was while attending a reading by Ryan in Zurich Literaturhaus in April that I saw Hustvedt’s name in the summer programme (see previous post).

I’ll be keeping a close eye on their programme from now on.

Are there any Hustvedt fans out there? I read two conflicting reviews of The Blazing World, published in May last year. The Guardian review was largely positive but the Financial Times ripped the book to shreds. So far I’ve only read two of Hustvedt’s five novels – What I Loved and The Summer Without Men, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.