Reader’s Block

Have you ever experienced those weeks where one day you are extremely enthusiastic about reading, you have a book you’re loving – and then the next day all motivation to read has gone.

That is what has happened to me. I was getting along very well with The Blind Man’s Garden. I even took it with me on a weekend away for Gloria’s birthday and read a few chapters. But since I returned home I haven’t opened the book.

Most of my reading is done at work in lunch and tea breaks (smoko breaks in the local lingo), but my mind has been elsewhere. We’ve been going through major changes at work, most of them unnecessary, so there’s been quite a lot of stress over that.

And of course, news events over the last week have also been a distraction starting with the Boston Marathon bombings. I was trying to keep up to date with that and writing a few thoughts on my Onesimus Files blog, as well as contributing opinions to other sites. Hopefully, now that things have begun to settle down a little, I can get back to reading the excellent book that inspired my enthusiasm a week and a half ago.

Alaskan Authors in Conversation

Here is an excellent discussion between Alaskan authors Eowyn Ivey & Andromeda Romano-Lax. The recording lasts for a little over an hour as they discuss their work including Ivey’s novel The Snow Child and Romano-Lax’s books The Spanish Bow and The Detour.

The discussion is both entertaining and informative. They are not only talented writers, but also very capable public speakers.

The recording is a blend of conversation and interview.

The link comes from here:

Honesty With Beauty and Horror

Blind Mans GardenI’m really jumping the gun with this one, but I felt the need to write something in praise of this book even though I’m less than a quarter of the way into it.

The first 100 pages of The Blind Man’s Garden contain some of the best writing I’ve read. Lyrical, lush and poetic in descriptions of both beauty and horror, the book rings with  honesty, moving the reader through a range of emotions without a hint of manipulation.

The “war on terror” in Afghanistan and its effects are central to the beginning of the story with the real heroes of war being the everyday people who have to survive the horrors arising from someone else’s religio-political power struggle.

I’m loving this book and will certainly be looking for more of Nadeem Aslam’s work.

Cloud Atlas: literary seduction

Cloud_atlasMy reading direction in the first few months of this year was set by David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. This book inspired a desire to read more “literary” fiction, something I’ve mostly neglected in recent years. I don’t know how long that interest will be maintained. It will probably wane when I come to a book I find tedious and unrewarding.

Having that in the back of my mind I find myself avoiding some books I think I’d like to read, especially some of the “classics”.

My experience with those old favourites hasn’t always been fruitful and I remember having a hard time motivating myself to keep going with Wuthering Heights. It was one of the dullest reading experiences I’ve had.

The first “classic” I remember tackling was Tess of the D’Urbervilles. It was on the reading list at High School, but true to form I managed to avoid it during the school year. However a few years later I picked it up and started reading. At the time it was like running a painful marathon, hard going with a wonderful sense of achievement (relief?) at the end. But I enjoyed it enough to read another Thomas Hardy book, Far From the Madding Crowd almost immediately afterwards.

So what about Cloud Atlas inspired me to seek out more “literary” reading?

I enjoyed its structure. It is made up of several different narrative lines from past present and future. Each narrative is interrupted halfway and the reader has to wait for the conclusion of each later in the book. This approach isn’t anything new. It is quite a common practice to alternate different narratives within a story to build suspense, with the conclusion tying all of the separate threads together (hopefully) coherently.

Mitchell’s path differs because there is no concluding convergence of the separate narratives. Cloud Atlas could be seen as a group of short stories linked by interwoven threads and cross references For example, story one is written in the form of journal entries and its first part ends mid-sentence. Story two is written in the form of letters and the letter writer finds the first part of the journal we have been reading in part one and gives us an insight into the reason for the abrupt interruption to the story of the journal. These references can be found, sometimes more subtly, throughout the book

At the halfway point is Cloud Atlas‘s only uninterrupted narrative which is followed by the conclusions of the earlier stories presented in reverse order, until the last section of the book gives us the second part of the bisected journal from the novel’s beginning.

Another interesting feature is the use of language. This is most noticeable in the sections set in the future which are written in “evolved” versions of English. The further into the future the story is set, the more work is needed to understand what is being said. While this initially seems a bit too daunting, it’s probably no harder than reading the Elizabethan language of Shakespeare.

Maybe all of this makes the book seem complicated, but it isn’t. Yes there is complexity, but that was part of the appeal to me – its many layered and unusual textures of language and structure made it more interesting, its complexity being restrained enough to avoid making the book obscure and impenetrable.
Oh yes– I should add that the stories are very entertaining too: comic, tragic, intriguing and thought provoking.

Cloud_Atlas_PosterI’m looking forward to seeing how it’s all translates to the cinema in the recently released film. I can imagine it would have been a huge challenge for the filmmakers to combine so many different story threads into a film without losing too much of the book’s character.

Dolly by Susan Hill

DollyDolly is the latest addition to my Susan Hill collection, following  The Small Hand and The Woman in Black. These three books are in special hard cover editions, small books measuring only 111 x 178 mm and each can be read easily in two or three hours.

I bought the earlier two books direct from the author, autographed. That option is still available for British and European readers but unfortunately due to increased mailing costs Hill no longer sells direct to other parts of the world.

All of the above mentioned books are ghost stories following the Victorian tradition and are more creepy and unsettling  than horrific. They rely on building up a feeling of unease rather than sudden shock.

The events in Dolly have their origin during Edward’s childhood when he spends time at an Aunt’s house and is joined by Leonora a spoiled cousin. Leonora’s temperament triggers events and experiences that have a disturbing cost for both of them in the future.

The pivotal section of the book is a part that looks back to Edward’s childhood encounter with Leonora at his Aunt’s house, but a few times I felt the point of view of the child Edward was expressed with concepts and vocabulary that were too mature for an eight year old boy. I suppose it could be explained by the fact that the events were recounted in flashback by the adult Edward – but I’m not convinced by my own argument.

However, as events progressed and returned to Edward’s present day, I was able to overlook that minor quibble and could enjoy the rest of the story.

Unlike other books I’ve read recently that have addressed “issues” and looked at the consequences of human actions – Dolly seems to raise no answerable questions. Its events come across as being inevitable and characters (particularly Edward) seem to be the victim of unavoidable fate, so there’s no suggestion that he could have changed the outcome if only he’d done something differently.

Then again, there may be something beyond that impression of fatalism. Maybe the book shows that individuals aren’t the only ones to reap consequences for their own actions – that whatever we do also has its effect on those around us, whether they “deserve” it or not. And  maybe there are other forces at play that don’t fit with a strict materialist view of the “natural” world.

woman in blacksmall hand


The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith

Autograph manMy autograph collection was started in the mid-1960s. It was the final day of a sea-side holiday with my parents. They had bought me an autograph book as a holiday present. Taking a last walk along the promenade we saw Mike Winters, a well-known comedian at the time, part of a double act with his brother Bernie.

My dad approached him and asked if he would sign my book. He agreed and then patiently waited while my mum tried to find a pen in her handbag. Being the last day of the holiday she had used the bag to hold a few things that had been left out of our suitcases, and these were pulled out one by one during the search for the pen, including a pair of pantyhose.

Mike WintersEventually a pink felt-tip was found and my autograph collection was memorably started. Slowly my collection grew, but rarely with any really famous signatures. We had few celebrities around our home village. The most well-known at the time was Jack Bodell, briefly the British heavy weight boxing champion, and uncle of a class mate of mine.

It is only in during the past 20 years or so that my collection gained more prestigious additions, including several “A list” movie stars, prime ministers and other politicians, musicians, athletes and several significant authors.

Is it therefore surprising that Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man appealed to me? I thought I’d bought the book several years ago, around the same time I’d bought her first novel White Teeth; but I searched my library and couldn’t find it. So I bought a(nother) copy and over the Easter weekend read it.

One thing I found a little off-putting early in the book was the use of the name “YHWH” as label to signify breaks within the prologue. “YHWH” is the anglicised equivalent of the Hebrew name of God, a name that devout Jews refuse to speak in fear of breaking the third commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”.
Even as a non-Jew I found the usage inappropriatem unnecessary, and yes – offensive.

I recall Smith writing something in one of her essays about using structural aids in her work, a kind of scaffolding that was helpful while writing that ought to be dismantled after the work was completed. Maybe Smith found something helpful in using “YHWH” in that way, but in leaving it behind, it became (in my view) an irrelevant artefact serving no real purpose.

The Autograph Man of the title is Alex-Li Tandem a man with mixed Chinese and Jewish parentage. His interest in autographs began during childhood and in adulthood developed into a career, buying and selling and authenticating celebrity signatures.

Tandem must be one of the most dysfunctional characters I’ve come across – dabbling in mystical religion (his own version of his friends Kabbalah practice), writing a book that no one is likely to want read (Jewishness and Goyishness), obsessed with a reclusive “golden years of Hollywood” actress and seemingly intent on destroying the long-standing relationship with his girlfriend, the sister of his best friend.

I previously said that my early autograph collection was lacking famous signatures, but what exactly is fame? Smith looks at this question throughout the book. What makes someone sufficiently famous to make their signature worthwhile and collectable? TV exposure? Withdrawing from society after a brief but promising film career like Greta Garbo? Being caught mid-sex act with a celebrity? And in what way does a person’s “claim to fame” define them in other people’s eyes?

The story was enjoyable despite (or because of) the frustration of Tandem’s talent for making the wrong choices, but to me the ending was a disappointment. It brought no feeling of resolution and neither did it leave me with an open question to chew upon afterwards. It just came to an end with no sense that anything had changed in Tandem’s life. He was more or less back where he started, primed to continue the same mildly destructive path, enabled by all too forgiving and tolerant friends who fail to make him accountable for his actions, but continually clear up his wake of damage.

A year or two ago I struggled with Smith’s debut novel White Teeth and eventually gave up on it. After reading The Autograph Man I’m encouraged to go back to that earlier book and give it another chance. But before I do that I’m looking forward to her latest book NW. My copy of it arrived in the mail yesterday.

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

9781594204494Ghana Must Go touches on the difficulties immigrants face in trying to establish roots and to fit into a new country with its different cultural expectations.

Starting with the longest death scene I can recall in a book (60 pages from memory), we are taken deeper into events that test the fragile foundations of the Sai family. Fear, secrets and a little pride helps trigger the fragmentation of the family.

Mostly told in flashback, each family member’s journey is revealed step by step. Suspicion, jealousy and hostility are exposed and eventually we find out the reasons behind the destructive emotional climate affecting the family.

It took a little while for me to follow what was happening. I found the first part of the book to be the most difficult. At times more poetry than straight forward narrative, we are given a first glimpse into the Sai family through the memories of the dying Kweku – as if parts of his life are “flashing before his eyes”.

Subsequent sections add memories from other view points as we are introduced to other family members, and we are shown how badly fractured their relationships have become. It is only when the family is forced back together by Kweku’s death that secrets can be relinquished, forgiveness can replace guilt and blame, and the hope of reconciliation becomes possible.

The journey isn’t always pleasant. Some of the situations in the book are quite confronting. A couple of brief scenes of graphic sexual content could be seen by some as offensive, but unlike the case of so many other books, I found those scenes were not gratuitous at all. They were intended to be disturbing. They didn’t treat the portrayed events lightly and were not included without significant purpose.

Recently I have written about my reluctance to re-read books. While reading through this one I started to realise I could very easily return to it before too long. I enjoyed it and know there is more I could discover from a second reading.