#316 July’s People

I started reading a Natalie Gordimer novel a couple of years ago and am still half way through it (but had to return it to the library and haven’t been able to bring myself to get it out again since) so was a bit wary of getting this out – but at 190 pages, July’s People is considerably shorter so I thought I could probably give it a go.
Natalie Gordimer is a South African novelist and it annoys me that I haven’t managed to get through more of her work because I think there are a few on the list because it means I’m missing out on reading about a country and culture of which I don’t really have much knowledge – especially because her books seem to be quite politically charged. July’s People follows the Smales, a white family, who are taken in by July – their black servant – and hidden in his native village when Johannesburg is taken over by riots and looting, with white people being chased away following the violent (fictional) overturn of apartheid. The family of five find themselves living in July’s mother’s hut instead of their bricks and mortar house with only the clothes on their backs for an undetermined amount of time, desperately listening for updates on the radio they managed to remember to bring. The narrative centres around the mother of the family, Maureen, and the shifting dynamic of the family and the servant – which is painful to witness in many situations, particularly as Maureen regards herself as liberal and a “kind” employer (it causes her great discomfort when July repeatedly refers to her husband as “Master”). It also shows the contrast between July’s village life, inhabited by his wife, mother and children and, usually, only himself every two and a half years, and the life he leads in Jo’burg working for the Smales: complete with his own quarters, many of possessions than in the village, and girlfriend in town.
The Smales family therefore have to adapt to survive in fairly extreme and threatening of circumstances and also have to try and fit in in July’s village, where they’re obviously set apart by their skin colour, customs and language despite it being their hiding place. It is an interesting story but I wouldn’t say I liked it that much – there are a lot of snapshots in the narrative which make it slightly disjointed and made me have to reread a lot of sections and I didn’t feel like I could properly connect with a lot of the characters.


#315 To have and have not

This is the last Ernst Hemmingway novel on the list that I haven’t read and I’ve intentionally been saving it – but it had been such a long time since I could actually be bothered to read anything that I thought I’d finally cash in this “treat” last time I went to the library.
The novel centres around Harry Morgan, a fishing boat captain, and is divided into seasons; with Harry’s luck increasingly running out. Harry’s pursuit of wealth (and not especially great wealth – more just enough to get by) leads him in to more and more dishonourable (by which I mean completely illegal) deeds; and the different sections of the book seem to have some time stretching between them – or at least it appeared that way to me – but it could have been that the misfortune befalling him spirals out of control.
Despite being the first novel I’ve read in ages I got through it very quickly – reading most of it all in one go. The narration, plot and character development are typically Hemmingway – it is quite a short book and I don’t want to say much more and end up giving anyway any of the story. I wouldn’t say that this is my favourite Hemmingway novel – perhaps because, with the narrative moving on quickly to the next chapter of Harry’s life, it’s difficult to establish much of an affinity with him – but I did really enjoy reading it.

#314 Infinite Jest

According to the receipt I was using as a bookmark, it took a year and a month from me purchasing Infinite Jest for me to finish reading it – and fittingly it’s taken another month and a half for me to write about it.
In some ways, Infinite Jest could be one of the more ambitious novels I’ve read – most precisely because it’s physically just a big book that it’s been difficult to read – too heavy to take on public transport, awkward to read in any other position than sitting up… but in terms of content it’s (I think) extremely engaging. As with the other David Foster Wallace novel I read, a good 100 pages of the novel is taken up by end notes which are integral to the story (sometimes containing whole chapters) – which again were difficult to flip to, because of the pages being so thin and the book so big (1,079 pages) ! I much preferred this to Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, I think because it had more of a tangible plot and character set – albeit far reaching and complex.
Infinite Jest is set primarily in a tennis academy and secondarily in a drug rehabilitation house, the latter located down the hill from the former, in a futuristic North American dystopia where Canada and the USA have merged to become the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N), and years are denominated by their corporate sponsors, rather than numerals. The plot rotates around a number of points of interest: the Incandenza family history – with sons Hal and Mario attending the academy (eldest son Orin being an alumni), mother Avril running the academy, and now-deceased father James Orin “Himself” having founded the academy, then pursuing filmmaking before committing suicide; the Incandenza family present; the present and future residents of recovery centre Ennet house; conversations between secret agents (in particular a group of secret wheelchair assassins); and the students of the tennis academy. The narratives are connected via the eponymous Infinite Jest – one of James Incandenza’s films – which is meant to be so entertaining that its viewers lose the ability or want to do anything except watch it repeatedly – therefore making it lethal.
I really did enjoy reading it – despite how long it took – and think it was definitely worth the effort. I suppose this is a rare instance where it would have been better to read it via a Kindle or something but I’m still not considering getting one !

#313 Nights at the Circus

I must have been reading this for well over a month – mostly at the gym because, I have to admit straight off, I’ve found it quite tedious. I previously read (and didn’t especially enjoy) the Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter so I’m not sure if I didn’t make the connection when I picked this up (sometimes I’m bored and tired and am relieved just to have found something on the list so don’t really bother thinking who it’s by or if I’ll actually like it – but they all have to be read at some point anyway…).
Night at the Cirucs again employs magic realism in the tale of Fevvers (real name Sophie) a woman who possesses an extraordinary pair of wings. At the beginning of the novel Fevvers is performing in London when an American journalist comes to interview her (and her slightly severe foster mother, Lizzie) and (although from the interview chapters I didn’t detect anything especially amorous) thus decides to follow her across the world when she begins a skint with a circus travelling through Russia. In telling her story to Walser, and in the ensuing events with the circus, we meet all manner of characters – mostly unusual (as you would expect in a circus), and Carter is very good at these almost vignettes woven into Fevvers’ narrative, but I still didn’t find myself especially intrigued.
Part of perhaps my problem with this novel is that I could never quite figure out if I liked Fevvers – or disliked her – I found it difficult to make any kind of tangible connection with her – Walser even less so – so wasn’t especially invested in their histories. The version I read has an intro by Sarah Walters (whose novel Fingersmith I did enjoy) in such she sings Carters praises and although I do agree that Carter is very good at creating characters, I can’t find myself sharing her enthusiasm.

#312 Eyeless in Gaza

With this I’ll finally be up to date with my reading – at last ! – which still shows very poor progress for the year in comparison to every other year since I started reading through this list. Eyeless in Gaza is the third novel I chose for my holiday (although I was slightly sceptical that I’d get through even one – so managing to get through half of this which, at 504 pages, is really slightly longer than the ideal portable book length, exceeded my personal expectations but also is definitely a testament to how much I enjoyed this book – which I wasn’t really expecting).

I’d previously read (and enjoyed) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – years ago but it was such that I can still remember the story quite accurately (which doesn’t always happen) – and given the ending of the later I was prepared for this to not necessarily be an easy read – easy in that it is pleasant all the way through, rather than meaning quick to get through. Eyeless in Gaza follows the main character and sometimes narrator, Antony Beavis, in a non linear narrative through his life – from his time at boarding school and adolescence as a student at Oxbridge (generalising because I can’t specifically remember which), to the toxic affair of his early years with the older Mary Amberly, and finally him as an adult, now in an affair with Mary’s daughter (oddly, not the first lover they share in the course of the novel – I didn’t manage to figure out if Helen knew that Antony had previously been with her mother but I’m guessing not) and bumbling around somewhat as his father had previously – about which he’d been scathing in his youth. At the opening of the novel I wasn’t especially enamoured with it – but I think from the first time it jumped back to his childhood, shortly after the death of his mother, it started to interest me much more – so much so that I ended up spending a large amount of the car and plane journeys reading (rather than sleeping, as I’d expected).

Checking the blurb when I was halfway through the novel and re-reading that at some point his friend Brian dies (which I don’t think I’m spoiling because it is in the blurb…) was something of a jolt because I’d completely forgotten about it – and in this way I was intrigued to read on and find out what happened – but equally I was intrigued anyway – by all the characters (not just Antony – who did become more of a bore with age) and how they would develop. It was a good read and a pleasant surprise and I think it reminds me of some other books which I can’t quite think of at the moment – I think there are other novels by Huxley on the list which I look forward to reading. I did manage to completely ignore when this book was published and spent a considerable amount of it waiting for WWII to begin (although it’s obviously from the dates that I was grossly wrong with this).

#311 Goodbye to Berlin

I’ve been wanting to read Goodbye to Berlin (or Alexanderplatz, another Christopher Isherwood novel on the list) for ages – I did consider buying it for when I went to Berlin last year because it seemed appropriate (but evidentially didn’t) so it seemed a bit paradoxical to finally be reading it on the way to Portugal but there’s no way I wasn’t going to pounce on it when it finally appeared in the library – despite having no real idea what it would be about.

Isherwood shares his name with the main character and narrator (and the novel is slightly biographical) – amusingly pronounced “Isheyvoo” by one of his German landladies. The novel follow’s his life in 1939 pre-WWII Berlin – with pre war tensions beginning to creep in as the novel progresses – and the other characters with which he associates – an eccentric collection of Germans and Brits. Some of his fellow characters are those most directly threatened by the rise of the Nazi – namely, homosexuals Otto and Peter (although the later is British) and a Jewish heiress. In some ways this was like a series of vignettes, with each focused around the characters with whom Christopher was intimate at that time, as his lodgings and circumstances changed.

This was quite a quick read and I did enjoy it so it was worth the wait in many ways, however I wouldn’t be counting it amongst my favourite novels any time soon.

#310 Platform

Again I’ve had to check my library history but this puts me up to speed as of two weeks ago when I went on holiday and managed to get through more books in 2 weeks than 3 months ! If I have missed something out it must be something I didn’t rent out but I think it’s unlikely – I had another exam after Libra and have had quite a lot on at work and this year haven’t managed to read through it like I did last year – probably because I keep getting such unappealing books out of the library (but they have to be read at some point, you could argue).

Michel Houellebecq is (unsurprisingly, from the name) a French author – previously I have tried to read French language novels in French (because what is the point of being able to read French otherwise ?) but to be honest I didn’t pay much attention to the name when I got this out and it didn’t click that it was originally French until I pulled it out on the plane to start. Platform begins, I suppose in a nod to Camus, with the death of the narrator (Michel)’s father, and his return to his parental home. Michel, whose life is (by his own admission) fairly empty, then takes a holiday to Thailand, where we’re introduced to the rest of the holidaymakers on his tour and during which time he engages in casual sex tourism – which becomes key to the novel when he afterwards begins a relationship with a woman from the tour (Valerie) who works for the holiday company. I suppose this seemed an usual subject for a novel but equally it’s not something that I’ve considered at all really – despite having visited quite a lot of the countries mentioned – reading this on holiday (albeit in a European country rather than the places they visit which I think are considerably poorer) made it slightly more thought provoking.

The novel then follows Michel and Valerie as their relationship develops and as Valerie’s career progresses – the writing is accessible and easy to read and I got through it very quickly and, to be honest, it seemed like a strange book to have on the list until the last few chapters which I can’t talk about without ruining the novel; but which came as a complete surprise and took me aback quite a bit. Reflecting on it I can’t really explain why I enjoyed this so much – I think I appreciated the frankness of the narration although some reviews I read after have criticised Valerie’s character as being unrealistic and idealised – however I would take criticism with them because I think if a male character was written in such a way the same wouldn’t have been said. I haven’t checked if any of his other novels are on the list but I would be intrigued to read more – it really came into its own with the surprise ending and left me thinking about it for quite a while after – it’s been a while since I read a novel which has had me doing this !