Thursday, 5 March 2009

The lies we tell...

...and Happy World Book Day*! I spotted this piece in today's Guardian about the poll conducted to tie in with this year's WBD. Rather than being about the most popular books people read it's actually about the books most people pretend to have read. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four tops the list as the the book most people lie about having read (42%), followed by Tolstoy's War and Peace (31%), James Joyce's Ulysses (25%) and the Bible (24%).

I'm glad to see I'm not the only one guilty of lying about having read books to look well-read (see here for what some celebrities' have lied about). For instance, in spite of reading quite a few of Orwell's books, I've never even tried to read Animal Farm. But I act like I do. I blame watching the animated version as a child. It's given me enough knowledge to not actually feel the need for the original story (which is why, as an adult, I try to read the book before I see the film!).

I also lied about reading Tolstoy's Anna Karenina for years, as a friend at university just loved it and assumed no one could make it onto a undergrad literature degree without having read and loved it too. I did enjoy it when I finally read it about 4 years ago and hope to enjoy War and Peace just as much when I finally crack the cover on the copy that's been sitting on my shelf for the past 3 years!

While I've never lied about Ulysses - I read it at the age of 19 to shut up a fellow student who seemed to have based his whole reading identity on having actually finished it - I'd like to read it again, but this time with time to savour it properly. But I have lied about Oscar Wilde. I've never read anything beyond the excerpt from The Ballad of Reading Gaol that appeared on my Irish Writers' poster as an adolescent yet always acted like I had whenever Wilde came up with friends over the years.

I think the Bible's a funny choice to include, as I don't think many people actually read the Old Testament and New Testament cover to cover anymore. I've read all of the New Testament, but have definitely only read the "interesting" books of the Old Testament and have no particular desire to round out my reading with things like Micah or Haggai.

The survey also covered some reading habits like whether you turn down corners to mark your place or use a bookmark. The children's writer Francesca Simon is quoted in the Guardian's article as saying turning down pages is like mutilation, which I think is a tad extreme. I do both, with a preference for bookmarks, but then I don't consider the book itself as an animate object. I'm more concerned with the words themselves so I reserve my concern for mutilation of the censorous sort!

*to the UK and Ireland only, which for some reason celebrates WBD in early March when the rest of the world celebrates World Book and Copyright Day on 23 April, Cervantes' birthday.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Friday miscellany

Anyone who also visits Mark Thwaite over at ReadySteadyBlog will know that the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was announced this week (Mark is one of the judges). One of my unofficial reading goals for 2009 is to read more fiction in translation so I’m happy with anything that gives me more of a clue about what’s out there. I’ve recently read two of the books on it (The Armies and How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone), both excellent but of which I preferred How the Solider Repairs the Gramophone. I’m happy to see it on here, as I think it’s a book that deserves to be much more widely read. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that it makes it to the short list. I’ll also try and write up my thoughts on The Armies at some point.

This week also the announcement of the winner of the inaugural Warwick Prize for Writing - Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. I found out from Stephen Mitchelmore over at This Space (one of the judges) that one of my current reads The Art of Political Murder by Francisco Goldman was the runner-up. Although Stephen didn’t notice any coverage for this book it did win the 2008 Index on Censorship Book Award, which is how I heard about it. So far so good, but I'll write up my thoughts properly once I've finished it.

But back to business with my thoughts on Fethiye Cetin’s My Grandmother: A Memoir (introduction and translation by Maureen Freely). I read this slim book in one sitting and very much enjoyed this spare but powerful story of how one woman survived the Armenian genocide in Turkey. I’d recommend it for anyone looking for a personal insight into an often overlooked area of history.

As a child growing up in provincial Turkey, Fethiye Cetin knew her grandmother Seher as a loving, resourceful Turkish housewife at the heart of the family. This selfless woman thinks only of others and is available to all, acting as the provider of everything from "candles for the newborn to coffins for the dead". But as Fethiye gets older she slowly realises that this stalwart of her family and community has a story more extraordinary than anything she can imagine.

For most of her life, Seher's true identity as a Christian Armenian has been suppressed. She was born Heranus, to a well off family eventually caught up in the events of the genocide. After witnessing a massacre, Heranus is forced onto a death march in 1915 with her mother and brother. Both herself and her brother are ripped away from their mother, given Muslim names and sent to live and work in different Turkish households. As Seher (as she's now called) grows up, the memories of her true family and identity stay with her. But, for her own safety and the safety of her family, she keeps them hidden. Her tragic story is made even more moving by her knowledge that her parents managed to reunite in America, to be joined by her brother after his escape from Turkey. She lives, and eventually dies, with the knowledge that her remaining family continued to live many thousands of miles away from her.

Once Seher reveals her secret to her granddaughter, Fethiye discovers that her family’s true history acts as a microcosm of one aspect of the formation of modern Turkey. But politics doesn't interfere with the telling of what is ultimately a story about the strength of the human will. Maureen Freely's introduction also contextualises the story, reminding the reader how courageous Cetin is to write this story, in a country that not only doesn't acknowledge the genocide but also has severe repression of free expression.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone - Saša Stanišic

At the heart of Saša Stanišic's debut novel lies the real massacre of Muslim Bosniaks by their Serbian neighbours in the Bosnian town of Višegrad in 1992. The events are refracted through the eyes of the adolescent narrator Aleksandar Krsmanovic. Aleksandar wants to become as good a storyteller as his paternal grandfather Slavko by taking his grandfather's advice to "imagine the world better than it is". Using this child's perspective, Stanisic takes his readers on a tremendously imaginative journey through Aleksandar's childhood, as Tito's Communist dream finally turns to ash, though his adolescence, as ethnic tensions start to build, to his young adulthood, returning from exile in Germany to compare his memories to reality.

Slavko's death at the start of the novel is the young Aleksandar's first opportunity to flex his imaginative muscles, with an attempt to magic his grandfather back to life using the magician's hat and wand his grandfather had given him. But in spite of his childish belief in his powers, and in his grandfather's belief in him, this is Aleksandar's first taste of the futility of the imagination in the face of incontrovertible reality.

Aleksandar tries so hard to imagine a better world, in which his beloved river Drina can speak and his neighbours and relatives' stories co-mingle with his own like the Drina's tributaries joining her waters. His repeated desire to magically alter reality - "If I were a magician who could make things possible..." - becomes a moving reminder of how nothing can undo the events that overtook his life. Because just like the river, and just life life, his stories must move relentlessly forward.

At the emotional heart of the story is Aleksandar's protection of a Muslim girl with the "wrong" name. He and the girl, Asija, are playing together in Aleksandar's apartment building even though the building's overrun with Serbian soldiers, a brief reminder of how childhood continues even in the face of the horrors of war. When a soldier asks him their names he has a moment of clarity, when he clearly sees the power of names, of words, to alter the course of events, and protects this girl with a life. The fate of this girl - he never even found out her surname - haunts him even after he's fled to Germany with his family. From exile, he writes her letters that convey his dislocation and his desire to find out her story, what did her future hold?

The fabulous language jars with the brutal events at the novel's core but it also gives the novel its power. The fractured, anecdotal nature of the story heightens the horror Aleksandar's gradual understanding of the violence bubbling up in his ethnically mixed town and family. By using a child's perspective to narrate real historical events Stanišic emphasises the tragic absurdity of constructs like religion and ethnicity, while bearing witness to the horrific events that ripped through southern Europe only 17 years ago. Such a perspective also puts this novel in a tradition of writers that have used such perspectives to tackle historical atrocities (I kept thinking of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, despite this book being worlds away both in time and style). I also have to commend Anthea Bell's translation from the German. It's so skillfully done that at no point did I find myself self-conscious of the translation.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Emerging from the undergrowth

I've been silent on here for too long, especially since I've never planned on taking such a long break from blogging. But as the days turned into weeks, then months, my lack of posting developed into a block of sorts - the more I thought about posting the less likely I was to post. I had notions about using the new year as a chance to get back into blogging (I even had my first blogiversary as an added incentive) but I got sidetracked. Between having visitors and moving from Brighton back to London my reading was sparse enough in January, let alone finding the time or inclination to post. But, since I've been reading some tremendous books recently and my life has calmed down after a few unsettled months, I've realised it's time for me to emerge from the undergrowth and start to pay some attention to my space on t'interweb.

So this quick post is my way of doing some pruning and general tidying up before I resume business as usual.

Books read 2008:

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi - Half of a Yellow Sun
Adiga, Aravind - The White Tiger
Atwood, Margaret - Cat's Eye
Baldwin, James - Go Tell It on the Mountain
Barker, Nicola - Darkmans
Barker, Pat - The Ghost Road
Barry, Sebastian - The Secret Scripture
Bioy Casares, Adolfo - The Invention of Morel
Boyne, John - The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Capote, Truman - Other Voices, Other Rooms
Cormier, Robert - The Chocolate War
Danziger, Danny & Gillingham, John - 1215: The Year of Magna Carta
Ferris, Joshua - Then We Came To The End
Gaskell, Elizabeth - Cranford
Ghosh, Amitav - The Sea of Poppies
Gladwell, Malcolm - Outliers
Grant, Linda - The Clothes on Their Backs
Hensher, Philip - The Northern Clemency
Jones, Lloyd - Mister Pip
Kelly, Julia - With My Lazy Eye
Kongoli, Fatos - The Loser
Lessing, Doris - The Fifth Child
MacCarthy, Cormac - No Country for Old Men
McCabe, Patrick - Winterwood
Miller, Candi - Salt & Honey
Pollan, Michael - The Omnivore's Dilemma
Samarasan, Preeta - Evening is the Whole Day
Sexton, Anne - Transformations
Stubbs, John - Donne: The Reformed Soul
Thackeray, William - Vanity Fair
Toltz, Steve - A Fraction of the Whole
Yates, Richard - Cold Spring Harbour
Yates, Richard - Revolutionary Road
Yates, Richard - The Easter Parade

Total: 34

Of which:

Fiction: 29
Non-fiction: 4
Poetry: 1
Debut: 12
Children/Young Adult: 2
Works in translation: 2
Female writers: 11

Some of the things my first year of blogging has taught me:

1. I don't "do" reading spite of loving them as a concept, I just can't seem to finish them. Mainly because I love the excitement of choosing books - such a good excuse to have a book-buying splurge! - but as soon as I "have" to read them I'll do nearly anything to procrastinate actually picking them up. Not a good trait to have with reading challenges so I'm going to avoid all challenges for 2009. Instead I'll try to finish some of the books I said I'd read for 2008 challenges, and possibly read some of the books picked out in other challenges (I love the list of recommended titles over at The Year of Reading Dangerously 2009

2. I read far too little non-fiction - a paltry 4 books in 2008. I've always thought of myself as an avid reader of non-fiction, especially history. I even did a joint English & History degree because I couldn't choose one over the other! But tracking what I read on here has forced me out of my self-delusion. I'm facing up to the fact that I'm primarily a fiction reader. Perhaps it's because most of my non-fiction energy is taking up with the daily paper, the Economist and the New Yorker? Who knows?

3. I read even less fiction in translation - an even more paltry 2 books in 2008. But I've already set to work rectifying this in 2009 (I'm currently reading How the Soldier Repairs the Gramaphone by Sasa Stanisic)

4. I love Richard Yates. He'd hovered at the edge of my consciousness for so long but when I finally read Revolutionary Road in early 2008 I was blown away (I even enjoyed Kate Winslet acting Leo Di Caprio off the screen in the film version). Since I've enjoyed two of his other novels in the past year I think I can officially declare that he's my current literary crush. I was also really impressed with Nicola Barker's compelling Darkmans and so am tentatively planning to read something else by her this year.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Balram Halwai, the eponymous "White Tiger", narrates this furious, blackly humourous, epistolary novel. Over seven nights, sitting beneath the chandelier in his Bangalore office, Balram dictates his life story in a series of letters addressed to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. He wants to tell Wen Jiabao the "truth" about modern India, in advance of the premier's visit to the country. His journey from servant, living in the Darkness inhabited by India's majority underclass, to fully-paid up entrepreneur, part of the rich elite living in the Light, reveals the dark underbelly of the economic miracle of India today.

Born to a rickshaw puller in an impoverished rural village, where the water buffalo is the only member of the family to receive an adequate diet, Balram decides at a young age that he wants to escape his fate. He doesn't want to remain as poor as his father, scratching out a living in a village brutally controlled by the local landlords. His early childhood is marked by neglect - no one even bothers to name him until his first day at school, when the teacher bestows the name Balram - but he's an alert and bright child. He learns to read, a skill that instantly elevates him above most of his peers. When his schooling prematurely ends, because his family are too poor to afford his classes, he continues his education by observing and eavesdropping on the customers of the tea shop where he's put to work. Since he decided at a young age that good deeds are rewarded only with more suffering, he embarks on his career in the tea shop with "near total dishonesty, lack of dedication, and insincerity" and therefore finds it "a profoundly enriching experience".

It's in the tea shop, after hearing a conversation between two customers, that he decides to become a driver. He wangles lessons from a local taxi driver and manages to secure a job as second driver in the city residence of a landlord from his local village (the risk of kidnap means most landlords prefer the security of the city over the dangers of their ancestral villages). Through yet more opportunism, he rises to first driver and is then taken to New Delhi, to drive for the American-educated son of the landlord. The master/servant relationship between Ashok, with his foreign ideas and foreign wife, and Balram is at the heart of the novel, reaching a bloody climax that provides the means of Balram's escape from his fate.

Adiga's novel is fiercely critical of a country where the only way to succeed is through the corruption that fuels the entire system. Families trade their sons for dowries, and expect every penny earned in the city to be sent back to the village. Businessmen flourish by providing constant bribes to politicians. Doctors are too busy treating rich patients to actually treat poor people, despite drawing salaries from the state to do so. Policemen "solve" crimes based on who pays the highest price. Politicians buy votes, making a mockery of the democracy India is so famous for. No part of society is free from the lash of Balram's tongue as he reveals the decay. Even his fellow servants are castigated for the way they keep each other down through petty rivalries and hierarchies. Having climbed out of the Darkness and into the Light, Balram tries to be fair to his workers, but he too is wired into the system. As a driver, he ferried his master to drop off bags of money to politicians. As a boss, he pays his way out of any trouble his drivers get into.

The relationship between the servant class and the rich masters is what makes this novel so interesting for me. Ashok is clearly uncomfortable with having to command a servant, and his wife is disgusted by it, wanting to return to New York as soon as possible. Yet it gradually becomes clear that he prefers India, prefers a society where the rich are pampered and spoiled by a whole raft of servants - drivers, masseurs, cleaners, cooks, gardeners - in a way impossible in America or England. Adiga brings this alive with small details, such as Balram scrabbling around the floor of the car for a one-rupee coin Ashok's brother claims to have lost, finally taking a coin from his own pocket to satisfy the master. Underlying Adiga's descriptions of the boom in outsourcing - Bangalore's gleaming call-centres - is the idea that India is making itself the servant of European and American companies. The call-centre workers meet their clients' every need in the same way Balram attempts to meet Ashok's every need.

I have some minor complaints about the epistolary structure - in spite of who the letters are addressed too, it reads too much like a standard first person narration and the epistolary structure feels artificial and unnecessary at times - but overall I liked this novel and I think it's a worthy winner of the Man Booker 2008. Adiga is definitely an author I'll be watching out for from here on in. If anyone would like to read a short story by him, check out this link to yesterday's Guardian Review.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

And the winner is...

I love brand new fiction. Each week I devour the book review pages in the newspapers and magazines I buy and daydream about what books I could read. I get excited when a blogger turns me onto a new author or book that sounds like something I'd love. Yet, in spite of this, I rarely read books in the year they're first published. This could be because I let my library membership slip years ago and don't generally like forking out for a hardback when I know the paperback will be around in a year or so. Or it could be that I tend to think "new fiction" means anything published in the last few years...anyway, back in September, I realised that the only piece of 2008 fiction I'd read was Preeta Samarasan's excellent Evening is the Whole Day. So when my birthday rolled around in I thought I'd treat myself to the entire Booker shortlist and try to read them all before the winner was announced. Well, tonight's the night the winner is announced and (drumroll please!) I've managed to read them (almost!) all of them (currently reading Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, with only Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole left to go). Best laid plans and my defence, I'm not a terribly fast reader and the shortlisted books tend to be on the long side (Philip Hensher's The Northern Clemency is a stonking 738 pages long and the others range from about 300 pages to about 500 pages).

My reading's been influenced by the Booker shortlist for years - reading over the shortlists and winners from the last 40 years on Wikipedia (see here), quite a few of the books I've enjoyed most or that have stayed with my longest were either shortlisted or won. So while no list could define the best of what's on offer (how could one list that excludes US novels define something so subjective?), I was expecting it to be a good guide to cream of contemporary fiction in the UK. Now, after reading most of them, I'll be interested to see what finally wins. I didn't generally see the "extraordinary example[s] of imagination and narrative" the judges praised (see here for more from the judges). I'd be more interested to know what didn't make the shortlist (or even the longlist) in order to get a better sense of whether these really are the best of the 112 or so novels submitted for consideration. Perhaps that'll be the next step - we've got the longlist so perhaps it's a matter of time before we get a list of every book submitted...

Regardless, I've enjoyed my experiences. I loved Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture and it's the one I'd like to see win. I also enjoyed Philip Hensher's marvellous The Northern Clemency (which I actually expected to hate!) and would be almost as happy to see that win. Amitav Ghosh's The Sea of Poppies is a great read, though it wears its learning heavily (the details of the ship or the opium making process or life in that part of the 19th century in general were laid on thick and I kept thinking "yes, yes I can see you've done your research but please get your research out of the way of my enjoyment of your novel."). As it opens a trilogy, it didn't feel like a complete enough novel to me to warrant inclusion on the list (although Pat Barker's The Ghost Road won so being the start of a trilogy is no bar to winning). I'm afraid I intensely disliked Linda Grant's The Clothes on Their Backs, finding the characters cliched and hard to care about. Reading it was like wading through treacle, so even though it's the shortest novel on the list it's the one I laboured over most. Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger is enjoyable so far. It's a truly contemporary novel out of India, and is especially interesting to compare to the more traditional The Sea of Poppies. Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole also looks interesting. I'd prefer if neither of the debut authors won, as I always feel a bit sorry for authors who scoop up big prizes on their debut - I worry that the critical expectation for all their subsequent work can hamper their development.

Anyway, I'm off to heat up some pumpkin soup made on Sunday and settle back down with The White Tiger.

...The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga is this year's winner. Just announced live on the BBC's ten o'clock news. I do like when book news makes the headlines!

Friday, 19 September 2008

Booking Through Thursday (er, on a Friday), or how to break a blogual silence.

To anyone who's not heard of Booking Through Thursday, it's a weekly meme that's almost always about books and reading. It's great fun to read through people's various responses, as it highlights one of my favourite things about book blogs: how different people respond to the same thing. I'm not usually tempted to answer the memes myself, but this week's is too appealing. Answering it also helpfully breaks my blogual silence, which should give me the kick I need to finish off the stack of unfinished reviews I've got in draft form!

This week's BBT is:

Autumn is starting (here in the US, anyway), and kids are heading back to school–does the changing season change your reading habits? Less time? More? Are you just in the mood for different kinds of books than you were over the summer?

My reading habits are definitely influenced by the seasons, in that I find that June & July are the months I read the least. Sunny weather makes me want to be outside - be it for walks, picnics or drinks after work - and I'm terrible at reading out of doors. The newspaper or the New Yorker is about all I can handle when sitting in the sun. So I relish the start of Autumn, which I count as from August (if you want to learn a bit more about the Irish seasons check out the Wikipedia entry), as my rate of reading begins to pick up. This August had some gems in it, mainly Michael Pollan's excellent The Omnivore's Dilemma and Nicola Barker's equally excellent Darkmans (more on both soon). But September is my favourite month of the year - I love the back-to-school atmosphere (although I'm glad to not be actually back to school this year!), the renewed sense of purpose. For me, September is Autumn at its best: the fruit is ripe and the leaves are slowly changing and the days are getting just a touch shorter. I love it. It makes me want to read more than any other time of year. And this year I craved fiction. I craved fiction to the point where I looked at all of the new-to-me authors on the Booker shortlist and thought about how much I'd love to read them. I usually try to read the favourites on the Booker shortlist before the prize is announced, to have some sense of what the judges are deciding between, but I've never before had the time nor the inclination to read the whole list. But this year, my craving was enough for me to treat myself to the entire shortlist (so many hardbacks! Such a treat!). I've finished Amitav Ghosh's The Sea of Poppies (again, more on that later) and am now on Linda Grant's The Clothes on Their Backs. So far, I'm enjoying my newly reinvigorated autumnal reading habits.