#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.

#302 On Beauty

I’ve been seriously amiss with reading recently – as illustrated by the lack of posts. Initially I thought I just needed a mental break after my last lot of exams, but that was almost three months ago now and I’m still not really inspired to pick up a book. On Beauty I actually read at the beginning of January – and when I say “read” I mean raced through – so maybe it’s just that I’ve not really been surrounding myself with terribly inspiring books. I am 2/5 of the way through Infinite Jest, which I am really enjoying, but because of the size of it it is physically hard to read most of the time, which also isn’t helping !

I’ve been wanting to read On Beauty for ages – I read White Teeth years ago and really enjoyed it, so for the past couple of years I’ve been trying to spot it in libraries whenever I have a chance (literally all over the country) without any luck – so was extremely pleased to be bought it for Christmas. I love the way that Zadie Smith writes – she writes in a way that makes me want to read as quickly as possible so I can find out what’s going to happen next, but with such a level of detail that I have to force myself to slow down so I don’t miss anything. On Beauty centres around the Belsey family: the father, Howard, a (white) English college professor teaching in Boston (America), his African-American wife Kiki and their three children – Jerome (who starts out quite hapless but I did grow to like more at the end), annoyingly self righteous Zora and youngest son Levi. Howard’s professional (and personal) nemesis is rival professor Monty Kipps, with whom he has various entanglements throughout the novel.

I really enjoyed the way that the characters were written and that none of them were as straightforward as they seemed (it took me a while at the start to figure out who and where everyone was); and the way that the plot twists actually did surprise me. I would definitely recommend this – despite it having the most cringeworthy sex scene I have ever read (completely trumping Lady Chatterley’s Lover).

#301 the Last September

I’m embarrassed at how long it’s been since I finished a book – I’m not entirely sure why it’s been so long because I haven’t had a shortage of good books to read (although a couple of them I’m less than thrilled about but I may just return those instead of starting them…) I think I wanted a complete mental break after exams and somehow that’s stretched on for months. I’ve read bits of the Last September off and on during this time but it wasn’t until last night that I sat down and finished it.

The Last September is set in Ireland during the war of Independence about which I’m also embarrassed to say I know almost nothing; in Cork, at the country estate of Sir Richard and Lady Naylor, with their nephew Lawrence and niece Lois, around whom the novel primarily focuses. Despite the Troubles, the Naylors and their assorted guests continue life as normally as they can – with dances and tennis parties. Inevitably the frequency of their mingling with the patrolling British soldiers leads to engagements with the local girls. After Lois’s insufferable friend Livvy becomes not so secretly engaged (which makes her even more annoying), Lois’s aunt is keen to quash any opportunities of Lois following suit. This is observed by two of the Naylor’s visitors: Francie Montgomery, the invalid wife of Lois’s mother’s former flame Hugo Montgomery, and Marda Norton, who seems to enchant all the men at Danielstown but ends her stay to return to her English fiancé.

The Last September is wittier than the other Elizabeth Bowen novel that I’ve read (the House in Paris) and reminded me more of Love in a Cold Climate. I enjoyed it – so have no idea why it’s taken me so long to finish ! Part of the issue may be that I’m still ploughing through Infinite Jest, which is really good but difficult to read anywhere but in my flat because of its sheer size.

#300 Cannery Row

I realised a while ago that there was a John Steinbeck book on the list that I hadn’t read but missed the chance to get it out and it’s taken me ages to find it there again (because it’s been lent out to other people, presumably, not because I forgot where it was). I’m a big fan of Steinbeck and of 20th Century American fiction in general (though not in absolution) so I’ve been looking forward to this, and (although I love the epic-ness of Grapes of Wrath) I was quite glad that Cannery Row turned out to be a collection of touching and sometimes funny vignettes.

In contrast to, for example, Upton Sinclair’s the Jungle, the narrative does not focus on the eponymous Californian canneries: instead it gives a snapshot of the lives of the people who live on the row who choose not to work there – drunks, prostitutes, shopkeepers. The vignettes revolve around Doc, a marine biologist. As Doc examines and studies his various collection of sea creatures, so we study the inhabitants of Cannery Row, and watch as they, in turn, study Doc. Doc is held up as something of a hero to the others – and they, in turn, decide they want to throw him a party to show their appreciation (which predictably doesn’t go to plan).

I think I read in the introduction that Steinbeck wanted a change after the politics of Grapes of Wrath and wanted to find a new way of writing. While he does this to an extent in Cannery Row, he continues to create characters who are both likeable and flawed, human and identifiable. It actually took me a few days to get through this, which surprised me because it’s only 140 or so pages long, so that isn’t a reflection of how much I enjoyed it or the length of it and I’d definitely recommend it.

#299 Cause for Alarm

I’ve been skimming back over recent entries to try and figure out whether Cause for Alarm reminds me of another book that I’ve read – or whether it was just so well written that I felt completely comfortable and familiar slipping into the narrative. Either way I think it is actually a while since I read any kind of spy book – I’d guess the last would have been the Spy Who Came in from the Cold – and I would rate this a million times better than the latter – despite my never having heard of this before.

Cause for Alarm is set in 1938 and follows an out of work British engineer, Nick Marlow, as he takes up a new post in Milan as a stopgap. In the opening scene of the novel we witness his predecessor’s murder – so already we as readers know that there’s something amiss – but Nick quickly realises this for himself upon arrival – even just in the luxury apartment kept by the man on not completely such a luxurious salary. Already something in the situation – he’s selling armaments in fascist Italy which – while I don’t know much about fascist Italy, to be honest – sets alarm bells of espionage ringing for me straight away – if the blurb hadn’t set me off. Of course the problem with espionage is that it is rarely straightforward – and it takes a while for Nick (and me) to realise everyone’s intentions and who can be trusted (I’m not entirely sure you can ever be completely assured of that). What ensues is an extremely well written and captivating, suspenseful novel which also manages to be funny and clever.

I wasn’t really expecting much when I picked this up – I think actually it very nearly didn’t make the cut – but I’m glad I did and if there are any more books by the same author on the list I’ll be looking them out soon.