Every year I set myself a reading target – this year I am aiming for 24. In this regularly-updated post I’ll add each book I read as I finish it with a small review for anyone looking for some reading recommendations (or who wants to know what to avoid!).
Click here for reviews of books 1 – 5 this year (Including Killing Commendatore, Slaughterhouse 5, Conversations with Friends, Authority and This is Memorial Device)
Murphy is a novel I’ve been picking up in bookshops for a while. I’ve been looking at it partly because of its Irish author, and I’ve been wanting to read more of those, and partly due to nothing more than egoism. The titular Murphy is described on the back cover as a “work-shy eponymous hero,” which basically means he’s a lazy gobshite. He’s moved to London, where his girlfriend, Celia is making every attempt to get him working, and he is pursued throughout the story by a number of people he’s left behind in Ireland.
I struggled a bit with this book. The writing is obtuse. Not just because of the time it was written, but as an intentional stylistic choice (which is also apparently seen in Joyce, but I’ve not read any Joyce, so I can’t vouch for it). I was heartened when a review from the time, featured in the preface, reported that they also couldn’t understand a lot of it. The preface also mentions that the text is littered with intentional errors like spelling mistakes and inconsistencies to, presumably, add to the sense of being lost. I also found it very hard to sympathise with Murphy, or any of the characters other than Celia. At times, the author’s voice came through as cynical and there was a lot of men treating women badly, which I found problematic.
However, at its best points it is funny and some of the characters interactions are even profound. Beckett was a playwright and that comes across in the dialogue and scene setting. My favourite parts were where Beckett breaks the fourth wall to thumb his nose at the censor, which captures the funnier and more jovial aspects of his voice. Personally, as a Londoner, it’s interesting to be shown around London of the 1920s, including familiar spots like Caledonian Road and the Royal Bethlem (where the story takes a bit of a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest turn), and there’s a particularly funny and informative walk-through of how to get 1.82 cups of tea for the price of one.
I’m going to frontload this review with my main criticism – which is the focus on a section of the UK population that I think is already horribly over-represented in British literature. This was also my only major issue with Any Human Heart (which was, according to my records, my favourite book from last year). Only 6.5 percent of UK students go to private school. Yet, so many of this minority become authors, actors, producers that it gives the impression that the epicentre of British society is private school education and Oxbridge.
In fairness, the subject matter of The Party is clearly advertised so I can’t really complain, but by the middle of this book I was a bit sick and tired of reading of the woes of privileged people. However (and I can’t stress this enough) by the end of Day’s book it is clear that it is a damning morality tale on the abusive power of the upper class – a message I can very much get on board with. If we have to have books on posh people, this is the kind I would like more of, please.
The Party follows the characters of Martin and Lucy, a married couple invited to the 40th birthday of Ben – a gathering of the “great and the good of British society”. No spoilers, but early on in the novel it is established that “an incident” has taken place at the party. The story unravels on one side to show the reader “the incident” and on the other to give context and explain why “the incident” happens. It’s a good device, and the narrative is thick with twists, unexpected turns and shocking moments (none of which I’ll go into here). Most effective is the split narration from the points of view of Martin and Lucy, whose conflicting accounts subvert the other’s presentation of events. For example, Martin portrays Lucy as naîve but Lucy’s own account of Martin and his actions demonstrates that she is not. I’m not usually a fan of multiple perspectives but Day uses it to great effect to demonstrate the fault lines in the character relationships.
The Party is a story of obsession. In one sense, of personal obsession, which makes it an effective thriller with very interesting character dynamics (dynamics you probably haven’t come across before in a book). But on another level it is about an obsession with class – money, power and privilege – and this is what makes the book effective for me. With this novel, Day rips back the finery and shows the upper class off for what she believes it to be (and I am inclined to agree) – hypocritical, cold, calculating, using, snobbish, vapid, and, most of all – rigged. The overriding message is that the UK class system tips power in favour of the few, who can use it and abuse it as they see fit, with little consequence. And with Day’s final reference that the worst of the characters are running the Tory party, I was completely won over.
Soviet Milk is another novel I came across by accident in the bookstore but has planted itself thoroughly in my conscious and at the top of my (mental) ranking of books I’ve read this year. I’d never heard of it or the author before, and know pretty much nothing about Latvia, but I’ve always been fascinated by life in the Soviet Bloc – only 30 years past, but already so distant. I’ve read and watched a lot on East Germany, which is widely covered in media but, further east, the Baltic states are more or less overlooked and I was intrigued by Ikstena’s insight as, like the characters in her novel, she lived in Latvia through the fall of the Soviet Union.
Soviet Milk follows the simultaneous stories of a mother who is striving to be a doctor against the will of the Soviet regime, and her daughter who becomes increasingly aware of the oppression of the state on their lives as she grows up. It has something of Wild Swans to it, in that it follows a mother and daughter through the history of a totalitarian regime but is more literary and less biography. Stasiland also came to mind but I have to say I found this more effecting than both of those books (although I would recommend them).
In fact, what Soviet Milk is most reminiscent of, is dystopian literature. The fact that it isn’t of that genre – Soviet-run Latvia is not a fictional state, it really happened – makes it all the more impactful. In fact, in one of the more desperate parts of the book, the unnamed mother in the story is given a portion of Nineteen Eighty-Four – which, of course, would have been strictly banned – and finds obsessive solace in the character of Winston.
While Soviet Milk is a commentary on totalitarianism, it works so well because on another level it is also a devastating exploration of motherhood and depression. Happiness is beyond the comprehension of the mother in the story, even her own daughter’s. This novel is about her struggle to do her best for her, while the oppressive state tips the scales against them.
Rabbit, Run follows Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom – a 26 year old salesman, and former high-school basketball star – who, unhappy with his existence, one day decides to escape from his pregnant young wife and their young toddler. On reading the blurb on the back of this novel, my girlfriend commented that he “didn’t seem like a very nice man”. That’s putting it mildly. Harry Angstrom is an arsehole.
This book had been on my list for a while. Updike is often ranked as a “great American novelist” and Murakami references him a lot. He was even mentioned in The Party (above), although scathingly by a female character and I imagine Elizabeth Day and I have similar opinions on this book. I am a bit sick of these novels that focus on the American man’s struggle to break free from a life of domesticity. Revolutionary Road, What I Talk About When I Talk About Love, even Tender is the Night to an extent – while I understand the fear of an unremarkable, middle-class life, it is not a great enough issue to build a meaningful book around.
Of course, Updike has intentionally made Harry Angstrom an arsehole, and he is clearly trying to make a statement about the harm of his actions. Hence, the character of the preacher who tries to convince Harry to go back to his family. In the afterword, Updike admits that Rabbit, Run was a reaction to On the Road, which (although he hadn’t read it) unsettled him in its easy instruction to “cut loose”. In fact, at the beginning of the novel Rabbit begins a cross-country expedition on his own (the only bit of the novel I really enjoyed). However, Updike says this novel was designed to show that when an American man goes on the road, the people left behind get hurt. Quite a noble idea. So Rabbit abandons his escape quickly, and instead takes up with a prostitute in town while his wife and child live in the suburbs. Maybe not so noble.
This strange contradiction is my main issue with the novel. While Updike claims to be trying to send a message on the importance of family life, he seems to revel in the debauchery of Rabbit’s actions. The sexual politics are appauling, the sex scenes violent and unsettling. While Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty cross-cross across the states, we’re stuck with Harry Angstrom in Brewer, as he drives everyone around him to misery. He’s an uncomfortable person to spend near 300 pages with.
This year I feel like I’ve conquered the genre of angsty-protagonist-dealing-with-a-crisis-in-their-relationship-and-life, so I was looking for a change of pace. The Tango Singer is a book I picked before I visited Buenos Aires for a couple of weeks, two summers ago. Literature is my preferred method of researching a new place and for this trip I also bought Bad Times in Buenos Aires, an English memoir of Miranda France’s experiences in the Argentinian capital in the ‘90s, and Fictions by Borges. Fictions is short, but dense. I got stuck on it for weeks and didn’t made it to The Tango Singer while I was out in Argentina, but it was always a book I wanted to go back to once I’d had enough space from Buenos Aires.
New Yorker, Bruno (a name only a spanish speaker would give to an amercian) travels to Buenos Aires after hearing the story of Julio Martel, a tango singer who rivals Gardel but whose voice has never been recorded. If this sounds like a surreal idea for a novel to you, then you’ve got quite a good sense of this book. The overarching plot serves as the trunk for many branching and interlocking stories about the city of Buenos Aires (which actually draws a strange comparison with This is Memorial Device. Both stories are about a place, rather than a character, using music as the thread that pulls all of the components plots together. Although Buenos Aires couldn’t be much further away from Airdrie).
Martínez ingeniously uses an outsider’s eye to explore the strange, unique and contradictory character of Buenos Aires. It is a city that deals in the uncanny – built by European immigrants, it often looks familiar but it feels very different. This “otherness” is born partly from a sense of geographic isolation (it is also politically autonomous) and also its entirely unique history and myths. Borges, Evita & Perón, the disappeared, the tango, Maradona. These are themes, stories and characters you come across again and again around the city, and almost all of them have supporting roles Martínez novel, which is immersed in these legends and the very city itself. The author captures the vastness of Buenos Aires, its dreamlike state, how disorientating it is, and the strange quality of the people who seem to have climatised into a relaxed state of unease. All of these things I thought I had imagined when I was there.
“[Buenos Aires] looked like almost every place I’d ever seen; meaning, it didn’t look like anywhere else.” The Tango Singer
Martínez soaks in the myths of Buenos Aires and creates one of his own. I do wonder if an ignorant English person (like me) would be able to follow it if they weren’t already somewhat familiar with some of these stories. But having even the tiniest introduction to Buenos Aires, reading this brought me right back (and made me want to go back). I wish I had read it out there, and if you are going I strongly recommend you do. If you’ve got no plans to go to Argentina, maybe reading this novel will change your mind.
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