Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘julian barnes’

I’ve written elsewhere,  once or twice, rather pompously I’m afraid, about the much-anticipated Tournament of Books already. For the uninitiated, the Tournament is the most fun on the Internet in March for bookish types; it is at once silly–because prizes for art are inherently ridiculous, based as they are on the vagaries of particular aesthetic taste–and profound–because it is, always, utterly aware of its own absurdity. For several years running I have done my best to read everything and, while I regret this OCD completionist attitude at certain reads, it’s always brought me more good than bad. It was easier this year than in last–I’d already read quite a few of them prior to the announcement. My first impression of the list was one of dissatisfaction:  last year was not a strong year for me in newly published contemporary fiction. I’m still working on formulating my revised and updated opinions on the books I read since the brackets made their glorious debut; until then, here are some brief, impressionistic thoughts on the ones I read prior to the announcement, in 2011. All have long since been returned to the library or otherwise rehomed (space restrictions, the fact that I already own more books than any person my age has a right to, prevents me from keeping most books after I’ve read them) so I am unable to do proper reviews, with substantiating evidence and quotes and page references, on any of the books, but these, the long-ago read will suffer most. Alas, nevertheless:

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes

I liked this, as I knew I would:  memory claims that I’ve liked every Barnes I’ve ever read. It was fretful and extremely British; deceptively slight, but troublesome enough to continue in the mind long after the mere few hours it took to read had passed. I love this book for what it did to me more for its narrator (anonymous, forgettable, I do not even recall what his name was supposed to be) or the menial details of its plot:  it made me stop entirely in my head to think about agency and memory, action and inaction, the roles we play in our lives concretely and how they differ from the roles we think we play. “I wonder when our literature will stop being so obsessed with the fallibility of memory as its central theme,” a coworker said sarcastically when I tried to recommend it to her. She is right, in a way; it’s hardly a new idea. But it’s not exactly the point–the point is more about responsibility than anything else. A deeply moral book without ever moralizing, utterly profound, deserving of its Booker win regardless of what anyone says. In addition to its resonant theme I adored the way this was told–how actually, physically slight it was, how deceptively inconsequential and meandering and plotless/pointless everything seems until, suddenly, it’s over and you realize that something very large has just taken place without your notice. It’s incredibly subtle and masterful–I intend to buy it when it hits paperback and reread it to try and determine how it works, how Barnes managed it. This is easily one of my favourites of the batch and, though I’ve seen some mixed reactions to it, I do like its chances.

Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt

Helen DeWitt! Her first published book, The Last Samurai, made a great impression on me when I read it years ago that I’ve been eager to read more by her ever since, and this didn’t disappoint. Much. It’s a very, very different book from Samurai, and in comparison to that one it is slight–and not in a good way. Still, it isn’t fair to judge a book on the basis of its predecessor, and I did like this one quite a bit:  it was funny (a rarity for me–I am terminally serious and rarely amused) and biting and awfully smart. I actually read it–kind of, halfway–again in January to make sure it really was as satirical and clever as I thought it was. And it was, though perhaps a bit too reductive about gender differences to be truly great. ToB predictions:  probably not good–anyone who doesn’t get its particular brand of humor instantly might be offended or, at the very least, put off by the distant narrational tone.

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick de Witt

All I can really remember about this was how distracting I found the spectre of its potential movie while reading it. I enjoyed it, I think, but suspect I read it in one of my famous Sunday afternoon tears, that is, too quickly to think much about it. (This is my habit with genre.) Everyone everywhere seems to invoke the Coen brothers in reference while describing it and this is apt:  it reads just like one of their films. This is, more or less, a good thing, but it’s no True Grit (which I must have read about the same time or a little before) in my memory. It may do well in the tournament–I’m confident, at least, that it will make it to the second round.

The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides

This is my favourite to win–not because I adored it unreservedly, but because I think it fulfills a number of broadspectrum factors of appeal. I loved this while I was reading it–I could relate so much to it:  I love Barthes! and I’m interested in the varieties of religious experience! I know just what it feels like to fall in love destructively just after graduating from college with a useless degree in literary theory!–so much of it resonated, and, I suspect, will do so for others. For the day that I was reading it and about a week after I thought very highly of this book. I still do, but my swooning enthusiasm has died down markedly as the months have passed and I am more and more bothered by its defects. Which, as they are spoilery, I will not delve into in this post, but may return to if it does well in the ToB.

The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obreht

This book had moments of excruciatingly beautiful writing but it never came close to fitting all of its disparate pieces together in a satisfying manner. I would like it a lot more if not for its pre-pub hype & the fact that no one–customers, mainly–who I’ve spoken to personally save for my good friend L. even remotely agrees with me that this book was just barely okay and certainly not great. Sometimes having a dissenting opinion makes me really aggressively contrary. If this advances at all in the tournament I will probably spend a lot of time complaining about it to my boyfriend–because he’ll at least nod along and appear to be listening–and perhaps to the silent caverns of the internet.

State of Wonder, Ann Patchett

I have all the respect in the world for Ann Patchett as a human being. We–my coworkers and I–are all vocal, laudatory fans of her decision to enter bookselling. We scour our daily bookselling mailing lists for quotes she gives on bookselling, handselling, and indie bookstores in the age of amazon, and email them to each other, often simultaneously, always expressing the desire to meet her and thank her. Honestly, I’m kind of forgetting that she’s a writer.

I loved Bel Canto back in the day but haven’t read it since I was a young teenager. After this one, I probably never will reread it; she’s awfully bookclubby. This is fine–bookclubby books are often perfectly good and fill an important social role–but it’s simply not to my current taste. I still cannot decide how it will fare in the Tournament; Kingsolver, similarly bookclubby, did after all do very well with the (weak, I thought) Lacuna.

Swamplandia!, Karen Russell

I complained initially about the inclusion of both Obreht and Russell and I stand by that complaint:  I would have much rather had just one of the 20-under-40ers and given the spot to a more interesting, less well-known pick. Even though I like Obreht’s chances better in the contest itself, I would probably have chosen Russell over Obreht for the tournament, myself, because I personally found her effort to be slightly more charming and enjoyable. My notes suggest that my reason for disliking both books was the same:  both are so poorly structured that they fail as cohesive novels. I think I’m in the minority, but I am slightly more likely to pick up Russell’s next book than I am Obreht’s; I guess I just like alligators more than tigers. It won’t happen, but I’d love to see those two up against each other.

1Q84, Murakami

I had read half of this prior to the bracket release. I put it down in utter disgust, planning to never come back. Dubious readers, this is something I almost never do. If I have already read more than half of a book I am almost always going to finish it. I was bitterly disappointed by Murakami but my loyalty to the Tournament forced me to rally my strength, conduct a rescue expedition into the wilds of Under Bed, and sacrifice an entire Sunday to finishing. Spoiler:  it did not get any better. Scott Esposito expresses most of my complaints very nicely and with a lot less vitriol but even so I might write up something just about the Murakami–I can’t talk about it without discussing explicitly the end.

As Mr. McGinty could attest, if he pleased, I’ve devoted an unhealthy amount of the past month worrying that 1Q84 might sweep the Tournament, destroying my faith in my own taste. There are an awful lot of people on the internet who love this book; I do not understand and no one can or will explain it to me satisfactorily. I fear I am in the minority regarding Murakami’s behemoth; I fear it will do very, very well.

I have at my right elbow my copy of Javier Marias’ A Heart So White, a book that is much better, so far, than most of these. The library is nipping at my heels for its swift return so I shall, dear Internet, leave you for the pleasure of its company.


Read Full Post »