Our non-fiction read for the year is His Grumpiness, Paul Theroux, heading through Africa and bringing his unsparing, curmudgeonly gaze on all that he sees. And what he sees he does not like.
Well, every other book group in Australia’s picked it, so why shouldn’t we? Yes, it’s Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, the latest in that new genre “autism lit”. What will those publishers think of next?
In the spirit of our earlier enthusiasm and desire for “challenging” reads we’ve chosen Will Self’s Umbrella, which even devotee’s of London Perambulator consider to be, well, challenging.
Mr Sponge is currently unavailable, so our stop-gap book is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. If this film poster’s anything to go by, it should be a saucy read!
Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds has been getting lots of big reviews and onto lots of shortlists, but it’s not the kind of book we normally go for.
The book is centred on the war in Iraq and follows two lowly US soldiers, Bartle and Murph, both from America’s South, who become bonded during their training and look to one another to make it, intact, to the end of their tour of duty. But, while Bartle learns to disengage emotionally and get through the days, Murph struggles, eventually collapsing and [not a spoiler alert] dies in horrible circumstances.
Much of the book’s structure and story is set away from the field of conflict and occurs in the Virginia to which Bartle returns, and into which he fails completely to settle. The story propels towards the moment of Murph’s death and the events that follow: a cover up, and a letter that Bartle sends to Murph’s mother. But this is where, structurally, the book tended to lose its way.
It was still a great read, though All Quiet on the Western Front it is not. Its strengths are its themes of craziness and alienation and the author’s ability to articulate the young soldiers’ lost-ness, both in Iraq and after. Its weakness is in the writing, which occasionally become too clever for its own good. Those of the group with a professional background in mental health also questioned some of the actions and motives of people in the midst of PTSD. Truth schmooth!
I haven’t mentioned the Army Automaton that is Sergeant Sterling. A great character who reminded me of Robert Duvall’s “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” nutter from Apocalypse Now and a similarly psychotic NCO forcing cowering conscripts from their foxholes in Band of Brothers. Wars apparently need these guys, or maybe books about wars do.
There’s a Guardian interview with Powers [here] that provides a few answers, regarding the author’s background, that we wondered about.
And, of course, welcome to Jane, our newest member!
Our scores: Helen 9; Suzanne 9; Judith 8; Simon 8, Charles 6; Jane 7; Jo 7; Karen 6; Mark 7; Wendy 6; Marion 8. Average = 7.4.
John Banville’s The Sea divided opinion among the group, and the second of his novels to fall under our scrutiny did the same.
Ancient Light stands alone but also features characters from a previous Banville novel, Eclipse, and there are many references to the events and people from that earlier work. In fact Ancient Light is two stories: the first is that of a nearly retired actor looking back on the events of a summer and his sexual relationship with the older Mrs Grey; the second is the same actor suddenly thrust back into work, though now on screen rather than stage.
For a book that is centred on the sexual relations between an adult and a fifteen year old we talked very little about the ethics of the situation. Rather, as with The Sea, it was Banville’s writing and language and rambling, almost plotless, style that dominated much of the evening. We fell into two camps: those who loved it and couldn’t wait to open it, and those who “hit the wall” and really struggled, particularly with the second half. (Interestingly, the “strugglers” almost all reached for a good ol’ detective novel after finishing Ancient Light. Gimme a plot!!!)
Was the language of the story soaring and transcendent or artful and self-conscious? Was the narrator’s descriptions of Mrs Grey’s body sensual or overdone and sordid? The answer is yes. It really comes down to whether you went with it or not.
It could have been a book 20 pages long or 2,000. But, most importantly, it was a book that generated lively, polarised discussion. It was a great night, I thought, a gorgeous February evening with a light breeze. The only down side was that we missed Helen and Simon, who I’m sure could have given us great background detail on the events in Eclipse, and Wendy, slumming it in her Fifth Avenue apartment.
Thanks to everyone who brought cake, cheese, figs, crackers, Ferrero Rocher chocolates (it really did feel like Christmas for a moment).
Suzanne 8; Karen 5; Judith 4; Charles 5; Jo 8; Marion 7; Mark 8; Wendy 9. Average = 6.75
New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani was less confronting than our other January double-header book, Trieste, but still gave us a lot to discuss.
Those present with a medical background gave us non-medical types plenty to think about with the way that medicos can (apparently) transfer expectations, hopes and aspirations onto their patients. Several people commented positively on the author’s (and, again, the translator’s) ability to describe the period and the landscape.
Father Koskela’s lessons on Finnish mythology divided opinion. For some, they offered insights into the Finnish psyche, for others … But all agreed that the setting was fascinating and, as with Trieste, most of us at some point found ourselves on Google, wanting to learn more about this sparsely populated but bigger-than-you-think nation squeezed between Scandinavia and Russia.
Our marks: Marion 7; Wendy 7; Karen 7; Helen 7; Charles 7; Judith 6; Jo 6; Simon 4; Mark 3; Suzanne 7. Average = 6.1
Dasa Drndic’s Trieste describes itself as “documentary fiction”. The story follows several generations of the Baar and Tedeschi families through the years before, during and after the Second World War, with all its awful impacts on the people of that city.
Opinions varied on how well the author (and translator) accomplished the task of balancing the documentary with the fiction, and the impact of the clash between the horrors of the Holocaust with the banality of its execution. I came across this snippet from AN Wilson in the Financial Times‘s review that sums up this ambivalence:
This is a quite appallingly painful book … Trieste recalls that great essay by Simone Weil on the capacity of war to reduce human beings to things. It contains no consolation, no happy resolutions, no hope. It makes you groan with despair, and you feel yourself going mad as you read it. I seldom read any book that made me more achingly unhappy. It is a masterpiece.
It’s a book that’s intent is to confront in every way, and our marks tended to reflect that.
Marion 4; Wendy 3; Karen 5; Helen 6; Charles 5; Judith 2; Jo 4; Simon 6; Mark 1: Average = 4