Tag Archives: Eleanor Catton

Failing the long read

I have a need to confess something. I don’t always finish reading books. Some readers once they have begun will read on, whatever the quality or interest in the book. But pretty quickly I learned that with non-fiction books you do not need to read it all, and do not need to start at page 1. It may be that the habits of study led me to read several books at the same time and to setting aside a very few.

Here are four books that I have been unable to finish and they have one thing in common.

The Glorious Heresies

This novel has many very attractive aspects including its glorious anarchies: lively characters, surprising and even shocking events, a world that is far from mine (Cork to a village in Devon) and a complex story involving cover-ups and revenge and mothers who reappear and people who go off the grid …

It won The Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize in 2016. But I haven’t finish it.

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInnery published in 2015 by Hodder & Stoughton. 371pp

The Luminaries

Another prizewinner, this novel won the Man Booker Prize in 2013. The Luminaries is set in New Zealand, and self-consciously offers a very complex and intricate story about – I’ve forgotten. The zodiac is a framing device. And the city of Hokitika is featured, which I noticed because I once bought a pair of socks there. I was reminded of Dickens and Wilkie Collins when I began to read it. But soon the vast array of characters, the intricacies of the plot, and perhaps the weight of the book made me put it down one evening and not open it up again. The socks, by the way, developed holes and were thrown away.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton published in 2013 by Granta Books. 828pp

A Brief History of Seven Killings

The title of this book is doubly deceptive. It is neither brief nor about only seven killings. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James is set in the dark underworld of Jamaica, violent and vibrant. A great combination on which I started off with much enthusiasm. But gradually the cast and the plot got the better of me despite it having won the Man Booker Prize in 2014.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James published by Riverhead Books in 2014. 688pp

If you have read this far you might be thinking that what these novels have in common is that they are prizewinners, winners of big prizes. But actually that’s not it. Here’s my last example.

Don Quixote

I bought this years ago, deciding I should read the first novel ever written and one with European influence. And I did soldier through quite a few episodes, and taverns and adventures and stupidities. And then I put it aside. It’s been around for 412 years, so I can pick it up again any time. As far as I am aware it has never won any prizes, although Edith Grossman was widely praised for her translation.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, first published in 1605, translated by Edith Grossman, published by Vintage in 2005. 940pp

So there you have it. My dirty little secret is that I get defeated by weight and complexity. It’s not that I never finish long books, only that the book has to be the right ones at the right time and for the right reason and not too long.

Do you think I should adopt the stance of Senator Elizabeth Warren: … nevertheless she persisted? If you think I should finish any of these four novels please let me know which and why.

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How my TBR pile grows like Topsy

Growing like Topsy – a phrase that means relentless growth. Topsy is a character from Uncle Tom’s Cabin who grew in ignorance of her Maker. I think of Topsy now as I contemplate how I can never reduce my pile of books to be read (TBR or tbr for anyone new to blogging). It just grows, like Topsy.

How do books get added?

Let’s count the ways books get onto the pile. I found six sources. No wonder I make so little impact on it. Read one book from the tbr pile and another two will have been added while I was engrossed. Here they are:

Blog Series

233 Unnecess woman coverEvery two months I read for the next in the series on this blog looking at older women in fiction. I have planned my next read: Rabih Alameddie An Unnecessary Woman and have an idea about the selection for June. And this year I’m joining Heavenali in the #Woolfalong. This will mean reading something by Virginia Woolf every two months and joining on-line discussions. Thinking about a series gives some shape and continuity to my reading, which otherwise becomes merely episodic.

Recommendations

From friends, newspapers, literary journals and from blogs.

Prize Winners

I am a little suspicious of prize winners, having read a few that did not seem to be outstanding. But I usually read the annual Man Booker Prize winner. I am currently struggling through the cornucopia of voices and perpetual violence of A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. It is neither brief nor limited to seven killings. But very confident and polished.

And I usually read all the shortlist of the Bailey’s Women Prize for Fiction. We need prizes that promote women’s writing. How could you ignore How to be both by Ali Smith? And I take note of some of the others awards: Samuel Johnson, Fiction Uncovered and Folio Prize.

Books I am sent

The subscription to Peirene was a one of the best Christmas presents I ever gave myself. Three times a year a novella, in translation, appears in my letterbox. Some great reading comes to me this way. The books are beautifully designed and printed on good quality paper. The first was The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch – what a good choice for a book group, by the way. The subscription puts me in touch with more foreign fiction.

Occasionally I get offered books for review. Some I don’t accept as they do not appear to be the kind of book I like to read and review. But again, it stretches me at the same time as it disrupts my reading plans as the book often needs to go near the top of the tbr pile to coincide with the publication date.

233 Claxton cover

And friends and family give me books, although my daughter says it’s difficult as I am very picky or I’ve read it. She gave me Claxton by Mark Cocker for Christmas and I’m enjoying dipping into this minutely observed nature writing. It sits in my ‘being read’ pile beside my bed, under the Marlon James.

Reading Groups

Book group choices are another way in which I get required to read books I may not have chosen. Sometimes I read a book I would have been sorry to miss. Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement was one of these. I also read Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane, which might have languished near the bottom of the pile if the group had not decided to read it. Some duds here too, but that’s ok.

Occasional events

I add to the pile for specific events, usually ones that I am planning to discuss on the blog. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley Wollstonecraft is on my list because I have tickets to the Royal Ballet performance in May. I wanted to use Ali Smith’s Public Library collection to celebrate Library Day in February.

Where is this tbr pile?

I don’t possess a Kindle so I have a real pile of books. They are kept in a nook in my bedroom, beside the chimney in the 2 foot thick walls of my cottage. They just about fit. Actually The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton is still taking up a great deal of the space, a book that I began, put down and haven’t yet picked up again.

233 TBR shelf

233 tbr fileI also have a large file of bits of paper recoring books of interest. The books get ordered from an on-line bookseller (usually Hive) or reserved at the library.

And I have only been referring to fiction. My non-fiction reading is another growing pile on the coffee table in my sitting room. Another story.

Reading Schedule

I need order in my reading life, and so for the last 18 months I have had a reading schedule. This ensures that books are read before any deadlines and that all books are fitted in sometime.

Related

From Book Riot a post called Dealing with my TBR pile (by not dealing with it) by Yash Kesankurthy in November 2015. She was a little terrified of her tbr pile, but did something about it.

Or you could consider the meme TBR Book Tag. Here’s the contribution from The Writes of Women blog.

An early post from this blog: 5 ways other people decide my reading January 2013.

Who or what are literary prizes for? on Bookword December 2013.

Over to you

How do you manage your tbr pile and your reading schedule? How do you decide which books to add to the list, and then to read? Is it ever in danger of getting out of hand?

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Abandoning books

People have rules about this kind of thing: I always finish the book; or I only read books by women; or I can’t be bothered with books that are more than 100 pages; or I only read when there’s an R in the month. One friend says, ‘If I start a book I always finish it.’

Books byAurelia Lange.

Books byAurelia Lange.

Seriously – why finish every book? Why make a rule of it? Why do readers think they need to, unless they think they should carry on? It’s an irrational position, an act of faith.

Finding the hidden treasure

Part of me understands that every book might have some hidden treasure. And I can see that if I stop reading, I’ll never find it. I like to be sure of the treasure in the book from fairly early on. If I don’t see it then the book gets tossed aside. In truth, that means it is left in the pile of books on bedside table, slowly sinking to the bottom, and moved on to the Oxfam books pile when I decide to tidy up. Or returned to the TBR shelf to sit awhile. This is what has happened to The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. I’m not yet sure whether I have abandoned it or not.

130 TBRSome people I know borrow library books so that it they want to stop reading them they haven’t wasted money buying them. Kindlers can use the first few pages sampler.

Letting it go

Abandoning a book is a pretty serious action, an indictment, a judgement. So I don’t do it lightly. I decide when I don’t believe the book will get any better. Usually it happens when I fail to feel any interest in the characters. It’s rare, but it happens. If the characters are boring, or lacklustre or facing dilemmas that just don’t seem very important, well I can’t see any point in continuing. There are better things to do and better books to read.

130 D&sonI’m not going to identify the books, because I have no reason for drawing attention to them and my evaluation of them may not be yours. Except I will mention Dombey and Sons, by Charles Dickens, which just seemed to go on and on – but I may get back to it one day!

Not letting it go

Some books contain pretty nasty characters, in whose company you are really not very comfortable. I think of the main character in Money by Martin Amis. He is gross. But that is really the point. Or take Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. The book is full of very selfish characters who behave very badly towards each other. And it doesn’t even end happily. Of course, just because the characters are not sympathetic, it doesn’t mean the book is not worth reading.

Going back

Recently I posted about hard-to-read books. Some of those were originally abandoned, but then I managed to get back to them. For example, I found it very hard indeed to read the novella Chasing the King of Hearts, by Hanna Krall. It was one of my five World Book recommendations this year. I am really glad I did return to it. You should read it if you haven’t yet.

Throwing them out

Perhaps it’s the same people who never give up on reading a book who keep every book they ever bought. I wouldn’t have space in my cottage for my cat and my piano if I had done that. The unfinished, the duplicates, the unwanted gifts, the read-but-happy-to-give-away, the unreturned loans, the out of date non-fiction, the painful reminders – all these can go. Other readers can take them in. Perhaps they will make different judgements.

I like this take on the issue from the Guardian Review in May 2014 by Tom Gauld.

My Library by Tom Gauld

My Library by Tom Gauld

What other people do

Goodreads listed the top 5 most abandoned books in July last year (from a straw poll – ie what follows is not to be considered as proper research):

  • Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling
  • Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James
  • Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  • Wicked by Gregory Maguire

I notice that these books all had big reputations, so perhaps the abandoners were not their natural readers. And some people perhaps were put off by authors who use two initials in place of a first name.

And the 5 most abandoned classics – same source

  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (?really???)
  • Lord of the Rings by JR Tolkein (there you go again!)
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Goodreads suggested that 38.1% of readers will continue reading to the end. The writer Peter Wild when he reported on the Goodreads statistics, wrote that these people think that abandoning a book is a kind of heresy. Others quit after a chapter or (this may be a joke) 100 pages minus the reader’s age.

But whatever our practice it’s good isn’t it that readers don’t say, ‘I was disappointed by a book once. Never read a book again’!

 

Do you abandon books that disappoint you? If you stick with a book, tell us why!

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Interview with author, Roger King

How do writers decide to become writers? Especially when they get very little encouragement? And when they have exciting and worthwhile jobs doing other things? I only know one published author well enough to ask these questions, Roger King, whose most recent book is just out in paperback: Love and Fatigue in America. So here is another first for Bookword: after the guest blog an interview with a published author.

99 RogerI met Roger in the summer of 1983 when he had just published his first novel, Horizontal Hotel. We have been friends ever since, despite living in close proximity in West London (he could see into my garden), his move to the US, and meeting infrequently, usually in the British Museum. We always spend some time talking about books and writing. I am grateful to Roger for introducing me to the novels of Shirley Hazzard, especially The Great Fire. Definitely a recommended read.

I interviewed Roger and found out stuff I didn’t know despite 31 years of friendship and reading all his books. We had been on a damp tour of sailing berths and the coast in South Devon – Salcombe, Slapton Sands and a break in Dartmouth. The interview took place in a deserted Dartmouth tea room.

How did you get into writing?

I always wanted to be a writer. I was a sickly child at the age of 8-10, and conceived a project to capture what it was like to be a child before I was too old to remember. I was convinced that grown-ups were unable to imagine what it was like to be a child, and that in a few years I would also be unable to. I never wrote it. But I retained the idea of life being too valuable to be lived just once, that it warranted being turned over, digested and recreated in some new form – the considered, treasured life. I held onto that.

When I first met you, you were also working as an international development consultant with the UN.

I secretly always planned to be a novelist, despite first studying food science and then going on to a masters and a PhD in agricultural economics. It was a long detour that led through work in twenty countries. It did give me something to write about. When I finally started to write seriously, without any background in literature or the arts, I felt encouraged by such American writers as Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac, who drew on direct experience and were not intimidated by literary authority.

Who encouraged you?

No one encouraged me. Everyone thought it was a stupid idea. At school I scored high marks in creative writing but poorly in spelling and punctuation, so I came out mediocre. At thirteen we had to choose between arts and sciences and science was the practical choice. My father worked in a factory and my family saw education as a route to finding a respectable, secure job not self-expression.

At twenty-two I went to study in America and met a friend who was studying for a PhD in literature. She gave me a reading list of all the writers I should had read – I still have it. It was all self-taught. I started reading seriously but after forty years I am still filling in some embarrassing gaps in my literary education – though somehow I got away with teaching postgraduate English literature along the way.

At the UN, working in agricultural economics, international development and working to alleviate rural poverty, the people I knew thought writing fiction was trivial – decadent – in comparison with the work we were doing. I thought it could express a fuller, more complex truth. The jury is still out.

In my thirties I made a key choice by turning down a post heading a UN project at Oxford University – my perfect job in terms of my first career. After agonising, I chose instead to rent a cheap room and write my first novel. I then sent the manuscript off and went to work in Bangladesh and Sierra Leone. It was accepted by Diana Athill at Andre Deutsch. I didn’t know until my return. She was surprised not to have heard from me for months after the book was accepted.

Up to that time I was completely naïve about being a writer. I was 35 and had never met anyone who worked in publishing, or any published writers. I had no idea of whether I was any good, or how difficult it could be to make a career. It was beginners luck – it’s never been that simple again.99 photo cover

What are you most proud of in your writing?

I am most proud of having persisted. And of trying to do something new and thoughtful with each new book. I like to think there is more to be discovered for readers who spend more time with the books. I’m interested in doing more than just writing stories.

What are you most disappointed by?

99 Love & FThat it has taken so long to write five books, especially the slow progress of the last 20 years. [Readers of Roger’s most recently published book, Love and Fatigue in America, will be aware that he has been living with a severe form of ME in the last two decades. This book is described as autobiographical fiction on its cover.]

Sea Level is probably my favourite book, adventurous in form and written partly in poetic prose. It was an intuitive and a cogent way of writing, and tough to make it work, that is make it compelling and enjoyable. It requires the reader to read in imaginative ways, and not be led into the book simply by the linear logic of plot.

Since you have been based in America, you have frequently spent time in artists’ colonies. What do you get out of them?

They are a godsend to all artists. For a time, they take away all distractions and all other responsibilities and allow you to go deeply into your work. Everyone there is an artist and everyone is working. It is in the air that art is significant and important – away from the world where art can be seen as a marginal diversion.

Colonies put you in touch with people in other arts, which feeds into one’s own work.

It’s a mainly an American thing, not so much in the UK. But they are now proliferating around the world. Artists colonies have been essential to me because ME leaves me with scarce energy and at colonies any energy I have can go into work.

What about creative writing course? Can creative writing be taught?

Creative writing courses are a good way to step away from contingent life and be with like-minded people for a time. But there is a limit to what can be taught – and little to be gained without the writer starting out with an original voice and an original way of seeing the world. You can’t teach people that; that’s in the soul. There’s a danger of producing a multitude of irreproachably competent professionals with nothing much to say.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have just completed the first full draft of a new novel. It is the opposite of autobiographical, being fully imagined and researched. It has to do with memory and violence. It traces the widening rings of effect from cold war violence in Latin America and Asia and how it’s internalised in the personal lives of three people in the present day.

Recommended recent reads?

  • I enjoyed Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, that leads from a life much like her own on a remote Canadian island to the interior life of a pacifist Japanese Kamikaze pilot in WWII. [I loved this too: see my review on this blog.]
  • Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man, has gentrifying outsiders inadvertently opening the recent wounds of war in Croatia.
  • J.M. Coetzee’s, fascinating and unsettling Childhood of Jesus, brings a queasy humanity to religious fable.
  • I enjoyed the light-footed wit and originality of Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal, as much as I was irritated by her more showy and overstuffed The Luminaries.
  • Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was also well stuffed, but a compelling pleasure.
  • James Salter’s All That Is is the work of the mature master.

99 Rogers pile

Roger’s published books:

  • Horizontal Hotel(1983)
  • Written on a Stranger’s Map(1987)
  • Sea Level(1992)
  • A Girl from Zanzibar(2002)
  • Love and Fatigue in America(2012) The link to the facebook page for this book is here. His web site is www.rogerking.org

 

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Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald is being rediscovered yet again. She was acknowledged in her own time when this novel won the Booker Prize in 1979. Now her reputation is being revived by Hermione Lee’s biography, and enthusiastic articles by Julian Barnes. 4th Estate is reissuing her backlist. Great! But it’s a puzzle why Penelope Fitzgerald ever loses popularity. Successful novels by women seem to be forgettable. Something similar happened to Barbara Pym’s novels and to Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. Even the wonderful Elizabeth Taylor is not widely regarded as an accomplished novelist.

Two years before she published Offshore Penelope Fitzgerald’s publisher informed her she was ‘only an amateur writer’. People refer to hobby writers with the same sneer. Her response was, ‘I asked myself, how many books do you have to write and how many semi-colons do you have to discard before your lose amateur status?’

Thankfully she was not put off and Offshore won the Booker Prize in 1979. Everyone had assumed VS Naipaul’s novel A Bend in the River would win. According to Jenny Turner in the LRB the BBC’s Book Programme suggested the judges had selected the wrong book. Sexism and ageism were at work, especially as Penelope Fitzgerald did not dress in the expected way.

A ‘favourite aunt’, ‘a jam-making grandmother’, ‘Pooterish’, ‘distrait’: this is the sort of thing people wrote about the figure Fitzgerald presented, finding a dissonance between the performance and the craft and brains of the books. It’s tricky enough, dealing with these women writers, but one who’s old as well, and didn’t start publishing until she was nearly sixty: it’s difficult to compute.

74 PF

(Who else remembers what the Times said about Eleanor Catton when she won the Man Booker Prize in October last year? ‘She’s a chick, a slight pale (unassisted) blonde, … an unashamed nerd … but with pretty, user-friendly Glee-like nerdiness.’ Plus ca …)

74 OffshoreOffshore is a quirky tale about quirky people, who live on the shoreline of the Thames at Battersea Reach.

Between the Lord Jim, moored almost in the shadow of Battersea Bridge, and the old wooden Thames barges, two hundred yards upriver and close to the rubbish disposal wharfs and the brewery, there was a great gulf fixed. The barge-dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water, would have liked to be more respectable than they were. They aspired towards the Chelsea shore, where, in the early 1960s, many thousands lived with sensible occupations and adequate amounts of money. But a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like othe people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up, into the mud moorings of the great tideway.

Biologically they could be said, as most tideline creatures are, to be ‘successful’. They were not easily dislodged. But to sell your craft, to leave the Reach, was felt to be a desperate step, like those of the amphibians when, in earlier stages of the world’s history, they took ground. Many of these species perished in the attempt. (p2-3)

This gentle, generous humour and insight is typical of Offshore. The characters are all in one way or another losers in conventional terms. And yet they all have spirit and resourcefulness and an enviable sense of community. A charming aspect of this short novel is that the characters are revealed through the state of disrepair of their boats.

Nenna lives on Grace with her two children and is estranged from her husband. Much of the novels tension and drive arises from her feeble efforts to resolve her relationship with him. As a resident of a certain area of NE London for nearly 30 years I was amused by Nenna’s reaction to hearing his address in Stoke Newington:

 ‘In Christ’s name, who’s ever heard of such a place?’ (p40)

The other characters also live in something of a nether world. Richard, an ex-navy man, whose converted minesweeper Lord Jim is the smartest and most well maintained of the boats, cannot see that he may lose his wife who does not share his pleasure at living aboard. Maurice carriers on his trade as a male prostitute aboard his boat and is always about to make a better life for himself. His kindness extends to permitting Harry to store stolen goods on his boat. Willis is an old painter who lives on Dreadnought, a boat so poorly maintained it sinks even while he celebrates her sale. Hopeless. And Woodie lives separately from his wife during the summer, and then amicably in Purley in the winter, and is generous to all the inhabitants of the Reach.

Although they are quirky, the characters in Offshore are also comfortable because they are so flawed and so like all the people I know. We all occupy a shoreline between conventional mores and our own aspirations, expectations, obligations and ambitions. Re-reading this novel also reminded me of when I worked with troubled adolescents. The unexpected was always happening, events were always dramatic, rarely final.

The River Thames suffuses this novel, is almost another character with its moods, tides, mud and swells. Penelope Fitzgerald was drawing on her own experience of living on the river. And she knew a thing or two about sinking boats.

The only awkwardness was the daily life of the Nenna’s two children. Martha and Tilda seem as precocious as the kids in the tv comedy series Outnumbered. In 1961 these children were allowed to miss school and wander with little supervision – unbelievable in our times of compulsory schooling and testing and fears of paedophilia, let alone drowning.

74 PF noveld

If you have never read this novel, I hope I have kindled your interest. And if you have, I hope you may want to re-read it. Her other works are also enjoyable: The Bookshop, The Blue Flower, Innocence (recommended in Julian Barnes’s piece in the Guardian which you can read here).

 

Hermione Lee’s biography was enthusiastically reviewed by Philip Hensher in November 2013: here.

I note that Penelope Fitzgerald published her first novel aged 61.

Next Readalong will be Stoner by John Williams, enthusiastically described as the novel of 2013 on Radio 4 and a must-read novel of 2013 by Julian Barnes. Time for me to catch up. Join me in March.

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