Friday, 19 August 2011

Kate's Reading Challenge 2011: Books 15-19

OK, I admit it; I may have gone a little off course with my reading year, having just read eight fiction titles in a row (oops!). I promise I’ll get back on track soon; in the mean-time here are my latest reads.

No. 15. “The Best of Everything” by Rona Jaffe (Penguin Books, 2011)

With a cast resembling the Sex and the City girls (maybe a little less racy) and a set-up that mirrors that of the recent hit series Mad-Men this is a novel that reads like the TV mash-up of your dreams (or maybe just my dreams).

Originally published in the 1950’s, (when it was thought to be rather revolutionary) Penguin have recently reissued this novel about four young women working in a publishing house in New York. The characters range from ambitious and together (Caroline), to flighty and na├»ve (April) but all of the women share the same dream; to find love in the city. Chapters switch between the sagas of the central characters as they battle to work their way up the career ladder, try to escape the advances of their lecherous male colleagues and drink an obscene amount of whisky.

The characters are well-developed and equally interesting to read about, I naively found the women’s attitude to work in the 1950's (as a stop-gap on the route to marriage) rather shocking! Even Caroline, the most driven of the women is willing to abandon her career dreams in the face of an eligible man. The writing is super-light, but if you’re looking for a girly flavoured holiday read then this is your boy (irony intended)!

No.16. Jubilate by Michael Arditti (Arcadia Books, 2011)

I followed my light and girly read with something altogether more serious and literary. “Jubilate” is the story of the relationship that forms between a BBC producer and a Catholic woman on a pilgrimage in Lourdes.

Gillian is a woman overburdened with responsibility; her husband has suffered a brain haemorrhage and is hugely dependent on Gillian’s care. With some coercion from her mother in law, Gillian joins the annual pilgrimage to pray for a miracle cure for Richard. But her dedication to the cause is disrupted by the attention of Vincent, a sceptic when it comes to Catholicism, who has been assigned the task of making a documentary about the pilgrimage.

The affair unfolds in a series of chapters which shift between Gillian and Vincent’s narration and jump backwards in forwards in time over the week of the pilgrimage. The effect is a beautiful and complex layering structure, which sees some episodes reported from the different perspectives of the couple and others more sparsely described.

I was really impressed by this book, it’s thought-provoking and romantic but it achieves these accolades without losing sight of the serious issues at the heart of the narrative.

No.17. “The Break” by Pietro Grossi (Pushkin Press, 2011)

The B Team (minus Ed) flocked to read the first novel (translated into English) by our favourite Italian author of the moment. Having told myself I would only have time to read half of the novel before Grossi rocked up to talk Reformation at the Mr B’s Book Lovers Unite event, I ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting.

The protagonist is Dino, a young man who relishes the order of his quiet life. He spends his days paving the streets with stones and his evenings playing Italian billiards and planning elaborate trips with his wife that they both know they will never take.

Grossi’s style is understated, stripped back prose which I found incredibly effective and at very times moving. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the intuitive nature of stone-laying, a mechanical process which involves a surprising amount of instinct.

I loved, loved, loved this book!

No.18. “All the Stars Electric Bright” by Ian Breckon (Old Street Publishing, 2011)

Atmospheric and tautly written, this novel blends giants of Italian Fascism, Mussolini and F.T. Marinetti (initiator of the Futurist movement), with a cracking selection of fictional success-hungry artists, dancers and other creative types.

The narrative unfolds at a glamorous Futurist themed dinner party, hosted by Marinetti. Amongst the guests are aspiring artists and friends Emilio and Arturo who must compete for a prestigious commission and for the affections of Nina, the woman that they both love.

As cocktails and revolutionary cuisine are guzzled the claustrophobic mood of the party intensifies and the frustrated guests begin to reveal their true dramatic selves. A really exciting novel that simmers with tension, art, politics and pretentious food.

No.19 “The Shipping News” by Annie Proulx (Fourth Estate, 1994)

I can’t believe I have only just got round to reading “The Shipping News”, it is without a doubt the best book that I have read in ages! Annie Proulx’s writing is simply outstanding, her descriptions of people and places are so impressive, funny and vibrant, in particular a comparison of a character’s face to “clawed cottage cheese” sticks in my mind!

Quoyle is an overweight, hopeless journalist who returns to his ancestor’s run down house on an isolated area of coast in Newfoundland, along with his aunt and his daughters Bunny and Sunshine. He quickly secures a job at the local newspaper, where he is responsible for reporting on the shipping news (even though he knows nothing about boats) and car wrecks (which evoke painful personal memories).

If you’re a person who looks for great characters in a novel (and I certainly am) then this is a book that’s sure to impress, each character is so brilliantly and originally drawn. I'm adding Annie Proulx to my favourite authors list now.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Marvellous Monday Book Group: Travels with my Aunt

Lots of willing travelling companions
for Grahame Greene's unconventional
Aunt Augusta - so many turned up for
this one that we had to split the group
in two. So, this post will only be able
to cover half the meeting! For those of
you who were in the upstairs group,
feel free to chip in. I should also mention
that Chris provided some excellent cake,
which meant that despite us not being
prepared for such a large meeting, there
were sufficient nibbles to go round.

(Please, please, please try to remember to drop us an email/phone message in advance of the meeting to let us know you are coming!)

Now, back to the book. It was great fun to read and everyone round the table enjoyed this rather 'late in life' blossoming of Henry Pulling. There was some debate over exactly when the book is set. Aunt Augusta ranges from Edwardian courtesan to 20's flapper girl in people's minds. Henry, has the stuffiness associated with late 1940's/early 1950's English gentlemen - and yet he encounters a hippie-esque teenager out of the early 1970's. How much of this is Greene's design? After all, the reader is floundering as much as Henry is at the beginning of the book, encountering lives so far removed from his own sphere of existence.

There are some aspects of the writing style, however, which unquestionably date it as mid-2oth Century. The group noted that whilst there is a libertarian attitude exhibited by Aunt Augusta to her African 'valet', Wordsworth, he is the only character in a gamut of foreign gentlemen who Greene feels the need to voice in dialect (patois). As a result, the reader makes snap judgements about Wordsworth's intelligence, which he is never prompted to do elsewhere. On the plus side, Wordsworth is a very rounded and interesting character rather than an archetype. He has the wit to use stereotypes (himself as a coloured man and Henry as a dull, establishment figure) for his own ends - as does Aunt Augusta.

Henry's naivety underpins much of the humour of the book. How much of this is real, though? We are left wondering whether he has simply inherited his Aunt's gift for fantastical storytelling. The book is narrated retrospectively. Everything we are told has the sheen of careful reflection and detail rather than bewildering immediacy. This means that despite Henry facing some awkward circumstances, there is a feeling of assurance about each episode he recalls. It helps with the humour and light touch of the book and enables Greene to sneak in some pretty taboo areas of Aunt Augusta's life philosophy. It also helped when the suspension of credulity is required as the novel is full of coincidences (the most jarring being the chance encounter with the hippie Tooley's father).

That many of the characters are not fully fleshed out, or that their motives remain hidden, or that their actions are unbelievable, didn't cause too many problems. Aunt Augusta is a very entertaining character to spend time with: by turns outrageous, unconventional, immoral, flawed and dogmatic. As the focus of the novel, Henry's slow realisation that he has lived the wrong sort of life (staid bank manager, predictable days) is a treat and gives succour to all of us that it is never too late!

Next up is 'The Prestige' by Christopher Priest, which we will be discussing on Monday 19th September. (Lucinda)

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Ulysses Support Group: Nausicaa

Any sympathetic feelings for Bloom in the last section are tested here. Dirty old man or romantic fantasist? As a voyeur, watching three young Irish girls by the sea at dusk, Joyce spares us no details as to the desire felt by Bloom. Homer didn't quite have Odysseus messing his trousers, but there are strong parallels in this section again between his encounter with the beautiful women washing clothes in the river and the girls that Bloom encounters. Whilst some in the group felt that the syruppy language and excruciating small talk of the girls was in some ways more tedious to read than Stephen Dedalus' intellectual ramblings, others found that the section was a novelty: Joyce presents a scene with an omniscient narrator, description, dialogue, internalisation.

There was a lot of discussion around whether Gerty's thoughts are really hers, or whether the whole chapter is Bloom's creation and he is imposing his fantasy upon her. Claire (who is fast becoming our close reading specialist) pointed out that Bloom knows who Gerty is and a little bit of biographical detail about her from the conversation in Barney Kiernan's pub: 'Gerty Mac Dowell loves the boy that has the bicycle' which would enable him to do this. Plus, the voice of Gerty perhaps paints Bloom in too enigmatic and romantic a light - referring to him as 'handsome'.

There was also a lot of discussion around the significance of the idolatry of women going on outside, at the same time as a church mass is taking place, worshipping Mary and the cult of the virgin. There is also the significance of Bloom rejecting Gerty once she leaves and he realises that she is lame. Joyce's women at the moment exist and are weighed and measured in the minds of men thus far....roll on Molly Bloom!

We all enjoyed the liberal opportunities for Joyce to ham up the double entendres: we even have fireworks at one point. As the 'cuckoo' call echoes Bloom's situation as cuckold though, the scene ends with feelings of pity.

4 weeks to the next meeting which will be at 6:45 on Tuesday 30th August at the very hospitable Salamander pub. Plenty of time to get to grips with 'Oxen of the Sun' (p366-p407 in the Vintage edition) and a return to centre stage of Stephen Dedalus.