Fictional Discoveries and a Memoir or Two

Looking back through this year’s reading list I find that I’ve discovered (and rediscovered) several authors that I’d love to read again. I’ve added their other books to my wishlist.

Starting at the beginning of the year the discoveries have included:

Joan Aiken – a good way to start the year. Although I first read her Wolves of Willoughby Chase at the end of last year, it was the next book, Blackhearts in Battersea that really won me over. I soon bought the remaining books of the “Wolves” series and started working my way through them. The books are a fun alternative history, using rich and amusing language and could be seen as a precursor to the “Steam Punk” genre.

David Mitchell – I’d read Black Swan Green a couple of years ago and finally got around to reading Cloud Atlas, an inventive and highly readable book spanning various time periods using language and writing formats relevant to each era (including those of the future). It also has a very interesting structure   . Mitchell is an excellent interview subject and I’ve  enjoyed hearing several recorded interviews I was able to track down via google.

Salman Rushdie was someone I struggled with when I read The Satanic Verses, but his memoir, Joseph Anton was compelling from the first page. During the reading of this, when I reached the part where he described the writing of his first children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I took a short time-out to read that book. Its dedication to his son Zafar has to be one of the most poignant pieces of writing I’ve come across.

Zadie Smith is someone I initially gave up on. Her first book White Teeth is one of the very few books I’ve abandoned since I started my reading list a few years ago. But she won me over through a few recorded interviews I listened to and I gave her writing another go and enjoyed The Autograph Man and Changing My Mind. Like David Mitchell she is an intelligent and articulate interview subject. Eventually I’ll give White Teeth another try, but not until I’ve read her most recent book NW.

Nadeem Aslam – clearly there’s a trend to be seen here. Yet another I was inspired to read after hearing a radio interview. I could listen to him for hours. The interview related to his most recent book The Blind Man’s Garden, a non-partisan story about the effects of the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan. A genuinely sensual book, with vivid use of all of the senses to portray  convincing  experiences shared by a community affected by an imposed war.

Hilary Mantel – did I mention the trend? Should I point out yet another radio interview connection? Hearing her talk about her work led me to her memoir Giving Up the Ghost, and back to her fiction. I’d previously read Wolf Hall and now have the sequel Bring Up the Bodies on my “to be read” list.

There are some others on this year’s list I could mention, but they aren’t exactly new discoveries (or rediscoveries) more like old acquaintances who I can trust to give me an entertaining read.

But before I close this post I can’t afford to leave out Kate Atkinson. Started Early Took My Dog is the first novel of hers that I’ve read and I’m confident it won’t be the last. It has an intriguing plot alternating between two time periods (1975 and the ‘present’). There are multiple characters who are slowly shown to be connected to each in some way, drawn together by events and actions of the past. I haven’t finished it yet, so hopefully the conclusion will match what I’ve read so far.

Throughout this post I’ve mentioned recorded interviews with authors. Some of the best sites I’ve found for interviews are:

 http://www.cbc.ca/writersandcompany/

http://www.theguardian.com/books/series/books

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Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith

Changing My Mind was structured like a sandwich. It began and ended with academic essays related to books and authors I haven’t read. So through the first 90 or so pages I wondered whether it was worth persevering. Fortunately I stayed with the book and came across the more appealing sandwich filling.

The “filling” that made the book worthwhile includes essays on:

zadie0001The craft of writing.

Politics.

Human nature and identity.

Film reviews.

 and lastly

Personal memories of childhood, family and in particular of Smith’s late father, to whom the book is dedicated.

Then came another academic essay to enclose the sandwich

In the academic essays, the idea of “rereading” comes up several times, and those references seem to  show an aspect of Smith’s reading practice, and her literary interests, that differ greatly from my own.

I am not a rereader.  I rarely read novels twice, and when I have it has been many years later when I’d forgotten enough of the story for it to be like reading the book for the first time. The only time I recall finishing a novel and then immediately restarting it was almost 40 years ago with Frank Herbert’s Dune.

When I re-read Dune, it wasn’t because I needed to dig deeper into its wordplay or its philosophy of life or to admire the author’s skill, it was because I loved the story and the characters.

When rereading is mentioned in Smith’s essays I think it relates to more “literary” or “writerly” issues, and while those things don’t really motivate my reading of fiction I can understand the idea behind them. After recently finishing The Satanic Verses I thought I’d probably get more out of the book if I read it again; a second reading would build upon the first and maybe some of the puzzling aspects (of which there were many) would become clearer. 

If there wasn’t so much else to read it might have been something to consider. But there are far too many other books around that I find much more appealing. And the need to understand The Satanic Verses doesn’t come high enough in my life’s priorities to want to spend another couple of weeks reading through it again.

When I read fiction I am more interested in plot and character than in philosophy or gaining insight into the meaning of life – for that I’ll stick with the Bible: a book where continued rereading is more than justified.

The Satanic Verses – finished at last!!!

It’s finally over. The last page is turned.

The Satanic Verses has bitten the dust.

It was like running a marathon, an endurance event, painful at times, needing gritty perserverance, but I got through its 547 sometimes tedious pages.

But at times it wasn’t so hard. Along the way there were a few refreshing sections to make some of the journey easier. And it DID feel good to read those last sentences.

It’s perhaps a book that would benefit from a second reading. But that’s a possibility I don’t intend to test, at least not in the short term. I’m sure I must have missed a lot of literary gems: jokes, cleverness and tricky wordplay that went over my head. Rushdie likes his language games – and cultural references that mostly missed their mark with this reader.

For me the problem was the lack of engagement with characters. It wasn’t until the end of the book that I found any emotional connection. Then there was one section that rang very true with a family face to face with death, so powerful and moving – maybe enhanced by the lack of emotion throughout the rest of the book.

But maybe I’m being unkind to Rushdie. Maybe  I missed an important point and it was ME and not the book that was off target. Whatever the situation, I’m now free to move onto something else and after two decades I finally have “I read The Satanic Verses” bragging rights.

satanicverses

Rushdie’s Satanic Verses

satanicversesMy reading of The Satanic Verses has made it clear to me that the Moslem response to the book came from people who had not read it – they merely responded to hysteria whipped up by others. The majority would not have known whether Rushdie was guilty or not of the accusations of blasphemy against him.

How can I say that? Because the book is NOT one that the everyday reader would tackle, it’s not an easy read. It’s DIFFICULT and a struggle to get through. It’s not a book the average man-on-the-street (even the average Moslem) would attempt to read.

Moslems therefore seem very much like most Christians in their willingness to “follow the leader” without giving those leaders and their teachings due scrutiny; without holding their teachers to account. Without holding THEMSELVES to account for the things they accept as being true. In this case most condemned Rushdie on the say-so of others without conforming the facts for themselves.

Overall is Satanic Verses “blasphemous”? – I could see it that way, but NOT specifically against Islam. I’m sure Christians would find its representation of God to be blasphemous but what god is Rushdie portraying? I suspect he portrays a composite god based on various religious traditions and filtered through the author’s preconceptions of those traditions. I think my view is supported by the way Rushdie picks and mixes references from a variety of traditions as if they were all part of the one.

So what kind of damage could this book do to Islam or to their prophet, or to their god? Nowhere near as much damage to the public perception of Islam as that caused by the death sentence placed on Rushdie’s head, or the acts of violence committed in response to the book. Surely any god worth worshipping doesn’t need his “honour” to be protected by angry violent mobs. Christians should also take note. Maybe there aren’t so many violent Christian “angry mobs”, but there have been some very unwise, counterproductive protests against objectionable films and books that MOST of the “angry mob” wouldn’t have seen or read.

I don’t know how much Rushdie really knows about Islam, even though I understand he grew up as a nominal Moslem. If he knows as much as most nominal Christians know about the religion they claim to be part of, then his real knowledge would be minimal and any offence given to the Moslem world would be a result of ignorance and possibly arrogance as much as any intention to offend.