Wednesday, 18 August 2010

July - a month in reading

As the end of term approached, all grey matter began to seep out of my ears... reading became less important to me than travelling. But I don't have a travel blog (though I do have a travel notebook) so I kinda fell off the edge of the blogging universe for a bit. However, I return now, a nutty colour (not pistachio - maybe walnut shell?) from a Thelma-and-Louise* style tour of southern Spain, head filled with Moorish architecture and tummy stuffed with paella. And what of reading during this time?

How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall
This has been well-blogged about, so I shan't dwell. It was my first by this author, whom I know has had a lot of praise heaped on her. She has a very clear, crisp style, and an authoritative tone, and whilst I enjoyed this book, it felt a little experimental to me. A bit Rick Wakeman: a bit 'I do this because I can'. The shift in gear as one is jolted from one narrator to another can be hard to adjust to, as it is not simply a change in voice, but in tense and person. Interestingly, the story I thought would be most intriguing turned out, for me, to be the least gripping (that of Annette and the Bestia), whilst my favourite character was not even one of the four narrators - Danny, Suzie's dead twin brother, stole my heart.

It is an existential novel, one that requires attention and thought, and the questions it raises are simultaneously tiny and huge - why does Giorgio paint bottles? Is there more to the thread that links these people's lives than the tenuous one apparent - and what does this mean for the threads that link all our lives? (This could become a little 6 Steps from Kevin Bacon...)

How to Paint a Dead Man is essentially a book full of, and about, subtext; what is below the surface and between the lines. It is about the nuance of relationships, and the traffic between life and death. It is about the subtleties of shade, the position of art in life and life in art. It is not a curl-up and live-in kind of book, but it teased my brain, and woke me up. I look forward to trying some of Hall's other novels.

The Passage by Justin Cronin
Yes, I fell for the hype and the beautiful packaging. And I really fancied something that wouldn't tax me too much, although I hadn't bargained on it weighing quite so much and nearly spraining my wrist. So, weighty in volume if not content. I do not tend to read horror or sci-fi, let me state that up front. Both genres, for me, work better in film-form. I've read the modern classics - Interview With The Vampire, Neuromancer, and cinematically, I'm not averse to a bit of neck-biting or zombie action. But reading The Passage was a bit left of my usual centre.

I would say that you need substantial stretches of time to spend in chunks with this book. It doesn't work if you just dip in and out. You have to take a deep breath and commit. I did, and it came up with the goods. It's well-written, and once the future-post-apocalyptic world comes in, I found myself really warming to the characters and actually caring about them - I came dangerously close to shedding a solitary tear when one particular character dies. The world of the book is well-constructed and believable, the action fast-paced and clearly, in places, written for the Big Screen, to which I have no doubt it will be coming soon. My only bugbear is...I'm not convinced that it's original enough to be getting all the praise it's had. It has elements for me of those terrifyingly bleak Children's Film Foundation films I was raised on in the seventies, things like Brother in the Land and The Weathermonger, in which a few surviving youngsters cross nuclear-attack ravaged Britain to find sanctuary on the Isle of Wight or somewhere. The Vampires - or Virals as they're called here (and that's another thing - hasn't that been done in 28 Days Later?) - are interesting: part Giger creation, part Aphex Twin video, they are potentially something new, but I don't know if that's enough to make this whole novel something new.

At the end of the day, you know whether you want to read this or not. Either it's your cup of Earl Grey, or it isn't. It is more literary than most in the genre, for sure, but that doesn't convince me that there's going to be thousands of discerning Persephone readers suddenly turning up in the horror section of Waterstones. An enjoyable, bloody romp, to sound like a Sun newspaper reviewer.

Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd
Dowd died in 2007 of Breast Cancer, leaving a legacy of brilliant YA novels keeping her name alive. This one deals with the troubles in Northern Ireland in the eighties, and is an intelligent and beautifully crafted story. For young people outside of Ireland, I would suggest a brief grounding in the history of the IRA and particularly Bobby Sands and the Hunger Strikers to be of help in understanding the plot - Dowd assumes knowledge, and does not patronise with background. It seems particularly poignant at the moment, with pockets of rioting flaring up again, and could be an important reminder for all of us of how complicated and violent life can be under extreme circumstances. There is a lesson here in the price one pays for nailing oneself to a cause, a lesson that a whole new generation might need to consider. Probably not one to go onto straight from Horrid Henry...

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
I was sitting in Costa Coffee in Manchester Waterstones' when I literally had, totally out of the blue, an overwhelming desire to read this book. I honestly do not know what inspired this desire, but there it was, like the urge for an ice-cold Coca-Cola, and so I acted on it. And I was not disappointed. What an extraordinary style of writing! It almost feels like an unfinished manuscript, and yet that is exactly right for the nature of the story. In the same way that Charlotte Bronte gave us landscape as character in Jane Eyre, so Rhys does in Wide Sargasso Sea, and the rip, the tearing, we feel as Bertha is taken from this Caribbean dreamland to Rochester's tower is tangible. Rhys teases us: the nature of madness is questioned, played with, and our only response, surely, can be that insanity is relative; relative to one's surroundings, to one's family, to one's acquaintances, to one's treatment. There is an edge of hysteria to the whole short novel, and yet an eerie calmness to the denouement.

For me, had I not known Jane Eyre well, it would have been a more difficult book, but loving Jane Eyre as I do (in the old-time debate, yes, I prefer it to Wuthering Heights), the deeper dimension offered here was rich and delicious. It's quite unlike anything I've read before, and it has stayed with me in ways I didn't think it would. I may never read Jane Eyre in the same light again.

Just Kids by Patti Smith
Horses is my favourite album of all time. That, combined with the beautiful photograph on the cover of this partial (it is solely about Smith's relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe) autobiography, meant I simply couldn't wait for it to come out in paperback.

Smith's love for Mapplethorpe is evident all the way through the book - every word she uses drips with adoration, sometimes worship, sometimes a cooler respect, but always with unadulterated love. It was, for me, however, educational in terms of Smith's own artistic intent. I was surprised, given that I've always sensed an undercurrent of violence to Horses, to find that Smith was/is so much of a hippy. I was fascinated also by the way she considers herself a poet who happens to have rock musicians playing alongside her; not that I didn't know she's a poet - I have books of her poetry - but that she seems to have genuinely accidentally become a rockstar. Her entire approach to her own career is intriguing, and does in fact, from about halfway through the book, become the dominant interest.

Despite my sometime lack of tolerance for all things hippy-dippy (astrology, witchcraft, meditation etc - I was brought up with it and rebelled at an early age), I find Smith an engaging as well as profoundly talented artist and person, as well as edgier than I suspect she thinks she is. Just Kids is an extremely interesting and insightful book, and a wonderful record of the oh-so-dirty glamour that surrounded the Chelsea Hotel and New York in the seventies. Pass me my CBGBs tee-shirt...

* Driving the roads of the high eastern Alpujarras in the Sierra Nevada very nearly resulted in a re-enactment of that film's ending. I even had my headscarf at the ready...


Joan Hunter Dunn said...

I love your comment about 'overwhelming desire' to read Wide Sargasso Sea. I had that recently with 'We need to talk about Kevin', having had no desire to read it previously. I must say I'm loving it - obviously it's the right time for a reason.

Vintage Reading said...

I understand that overwhelming desire to read a particular book - I've had it myself. I love Wide Sargasso Sea - I studied it for the Women's Writing module of my degree and I have very fond memories. Rhys is an extraordinary writer - I believe there is recently published biography of her life.