#309 Libra

I’m not really a fan of Don Delillo from the other books of his I’ve read (White Noise, Mao II) and annoyingly I think there are a few of his on my list, so I’ll have to get through them at some point, but when I picked this one up I was already prepared for a bit of a slog.

Libra is a fictionalised version of the events leading up to Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of JFK – to be honest I don’t really know much about the actual events so couldn’t really make a comparison with any already accumulated history knowledge. It follows Oswald from his childhood/awkward adolescence to his time as a marine to his emigration to Russia (led by communist leanings) where he marries; back to the US where he is eventually noticed by a group plotting to (I think if I’ve got this right) attempt an assassination on JFK but not actually carry it out (?) – because of something to do with Cuba and Castro… as you can see a bit of it was lost on me.

The main reason for this is I think the same reason that I don’t especially enjoy Delillo’s work – in that, regardless of subject matter, I don’t find his style of writing particularly engaging. In refreshing my memory of the book via Wikipedia the article notes that Oswald neither presented sympathetically nor demonised; but I think this additional level of detachment adds to the barrier I already feel between myself and Delillo’s characters which is forged by his narrative style and results in an overall lack of interest. I would say that I prefer Libra to either of his other novels (White Noise started out okay but really dragged at the end and didn’t leave a great first impression) but I’m not in any kind of hurry to read a fourth.


#308 What a Carve up !

I’ve really let this fall to the wayside – but what’s worse is that so has the amount I’m reading at the moment – because I read this a good few months ago (in April/May according to my library record – yes it’s come to me having to check it to recap !). Despite the lack of blog, I did really enjoy this (and it’s one that I can remember reading and have consciously been meaning to update this about it for ages.

What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe is something of a murder mystery – somehow I didn’t gleam this from the title but when I brought it up in conversation (rare for me to actually talk about books) the other person guessed straight away – which probably illustrates how obtuse I’m being. It’s the story of a highly misfortunate, vastly rich family (misfortunate mostly through association with each other because most of them are truly odious characters), and their biographer; along with a few other characters unfortunate enough to become associated with them.

The way it’s written is witty and engaging – and there’s definitely something satisfying about reading about characters who are designed to be hated – although the comeuppance they get may be a bit too extreme for someone of normal temperament to be able to relish without at least a pang of guilt. I got through this surprisingly quickly in relation to other things I’ve read recently (Infinite Jest is still ongoing and I’m still enjoying it but it’s still too heavy to facilitate me getting through it any quicker…).


#307 Malone Dies

When I picked this up I think I was somehow confusing Samuel Beckett with Saul Bellow – I know the latter is on the list for a couple of titles (one of which I’ve read – Henderson the Rain King – and did not especially enjoy) and have previously read/studied (and did like) Waiting for Godot by the former – so I wasn’t especially looking forward to reading this when I started.

Initially Malone Dies reminded me of the Tin Drum, in that its narrator is writing from his hospital (asylum ?) bed, currently incapacitated and with an apparently lose grip on reality (which could support either hypothesis for bed type). Malone switches between description of his current predicament and the story of a boy called Sapo – who is eventually institutionalised himself (which did blur the lines between him and the narrator). Halfway through Sapo’s story Malone decides that Sapo is a ridiculous name, and the character will henceforth be known as Macmann (again blurring the line between Malone/Macmann by betraying himself as an unreliable narrator).

Although Malone Dies is more abstract than the Tin Drum (but less “magic fiction”-y) I did prefer it – the ambiguity of Malone’s voice and milieu intrigued me rather than annoying me (as it often does). I think this may be the only Samuel Beckett novel on the list and I know that it was initially written in French – which would have been interesting to read alongside the English translation.

#306 Youth

I’m currently struggling to remember how many J M Coetzee novels I’ve read – I know I’ve read Disgrace and think I’ve read Elizabeth Costello and Foe – but a quick Wikipedia of a few of his other titles on the list makes me question if it isn’t more (Waiting for the Barbarians too, maybe…). I remember noticing that there are a large number of J M Coetzee novels on the list a couple of years ago – 10 in total – but, unlike Charles Dickens, who I think also has 10 novels on there, I hadn’t (at that time) previously heard of this author.

When I started reading Youth I thought it was in line with what I then subsequently found out about J M Coetzee – as the narrator and main character is born in South Africa and is a student of Mathematics and Literature – and googling after revealed that it is autobiographical (“fictionalised autobiography”, as Wikipedia puts it). Fiercely autonomous, the narrator leaves Cape Town for London to avoid conscription and gets a job at (then new, I think) IBM. Despite excelling at Math, the narrator struggles with programming, compared to his peers, and turns his studies towards literature (completing a remote postgrad diploma on the words of Ford Maddox Ford with the University of Cape Town – which I think is another thing the author actually did). Despite a string of romantic entanglements with various women and an impersonal friendship with his IBM co-worker, the narrator seems predominantly lonely – occupied by his job in the day and spending weekend days in the reading room, the evenings are his own to while away. Although I couldn’t really identify personally with him, I do feel like this is an extremely accurate portrayal of a lot of people’s experience of living in London – feeling alone despite the surrounding masses.

This is definitely my favourite of the J M Coetzee novels I’ve read so far – I think there’s something about the narrator – constantly dreaming of a literary-like romance while leading an incredibly banal existence – potentially interesting on paper but in the reality of the novel actually pretty boring – that is incredibly real. I’m not sure how much of it actually is autobiography and how much is fiction but a big part of me hopes it’s more the latter because the narrator really doesn’t seem to be having a good time.

#305 A Heart so White

This was another airport purchase for my holiday although I didn’t get around to reading it while I was away. I hadn’t heard of A Heart so White or its author, Javier Marías, previously – I seem to have managed to read a lot of (translations of) Spanish books recently – this is his only book on the list and I really enjoyed it.

The blurb recounts the opening scene of the novel where, during a family meal, the narrator’s recently wed aunt (then a young woman – it’s years before the narrator – Juan’s – own birth) calmly goes in to the bathroom and shoots herself in the heart. It’s not until the very end of the book that we discover why she is compelled to do so. Juan’s father remarries, this time to his dead wife’s sister, and the present of the novel begins on Juan’s own honeymoon. Juan and his new wife are both translators, and I think the title is a reference to Macbeth, a quote from which Juan finds himself translating on their first meeting – where Juan is translating between the British and Spanish prime ministers with Luisa acting as a back up – to check that his translations are accurate. Faced with a fairly banal and strained conversation between the two leaders, Juan fabricates parts of their speech – putting words in to their mouths – with the result actually turning out to be quite meaningful. I suppose it’s ironic that throughout the novel Juan, who unconsciously strides to understand as much as he can of other people’s conversations (across all the various languages that he speaks) does not seek to delve deeper into his own father’s past, and the shadowy circumstances around his aunt’s death.

I’m not completely sure what I was expecting when I picked this up and read the blurb, but I did really enjoy it and would recommend it. The opening suicide, avoided for so long by the narrator himself, plays around the events of the novel – as he ponders his own newly married status, as alluded to (and directly discussed) by friends of his father, and eventually as uncovered by Luisa – but to be honest I think the book has a lot more going for it than just the driving force of this mystery.

#304 Dispatches

I’ve been reading this book for years – I think I bought it from a charity shop in my last year of Uni and on paper it should be ranked up there with my favourites, seeing as it is a 20th Century American war novel, but somehow it’s not.

Dispatches is a series of vignettes of the Vietnam war, as recounted by an American correspondent – that’s essentially it ! I think when I started it the first time I expected more of a story – I did actually have to start the book over again because I couldn’t remember where I’d got up to – which I don’t normally have to (there are some books that I’ve been reading for years – like Gravity’s Rainbow). It’s not an especially long book either – which I think is also testament to what an effort it eventually was to read – although by the end I did start to get in to it – I think maybe because there were finally some reoccurring characters and a bit more character progression. I feel a bit bad that I’m struggling to find much more to say on it – because although it took a (very) long while to get in to, I did ultimately quite enjoy it, but I don’t have any particularly strong views on it – completely in contrast to the John le Carre quote on the front of my edition which hails it as “the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time”.

#303 Love in the Time of Cholera

Not only have I been really bad at reading lately, I’ve also been neglecting this ! I bought Love in the Time of Cholera at an airport after I couldn’t find the book I’d intended to take on holiday with me (which to be honest was probably for the best because it was Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy and I’ve been putting off reading it for years). I did think that it would be a good holiday book because I was expecting it to be fairly dry and thought extended time on planes/trains would force me to get through it, but as is often (happily) the case, I was pleasantly surprised.

The novel starts with the death of Fermina Daza’s husband, falling off a ladder as he tries to recapture his pet parrot. This gives Florentino Ariza the opportunity to restate his love for her, a love he has harboured for (I can’t remember completely but something like) 50 years – since their brief, secret, mostly letter-driven affair when Fermina Daza was a young girl; the details of which are then recounted as we learn of both Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza’s lives, up to their present. To be honest there were several points in the story when I thought it was going to finish because I couldn’t see what would happen next – despite being able to physically see that the book was not nearly over – so there were quite a few twists and I really enjoyed reading it – all the more so, I suppose, because I’d had such low expectations.

I think these poor preconceptions may derive primarily from Ted in How I Met your Mother referencing it repeatedly as the book his dream girl would be reading – and I think he’s a very dull character – and maybe because it’s a title which I know is esteemed but maybe more as a “you should have read this but you won’t actually enjoy reading it”. Either way it puts me in quite good stead to hunt down One Hundred Years of Solitude also by Gabriel García Marquez – which I think is another title I was previously similarly dreading.