Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Poisonwood Bible

No novel which finds a white man losing his mind deep in the Congo can quite escape the shadow of Heart of Darkness. It is in the bibliography at the end of this book. Kurtz is echoed in the description of previous resident Brother Fowles who, we are told "had gone plumb crazy, consorting with the inhabitants of the land."

However it is not by 'going native' that Baptist missionary Nathan Price loses his mind but by the refusal to do so. Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May - his four daughters  and his wife Oleanna narrate the book. Early on we hear the story of Lot, who "offered his own virgin daughters to the rabble of sinners, to do with as they might, just so they'd forget about God's angels that were visiting and leave them be." We also know early on that one of them will die before the story is told. When we finally meet Brother Fowles we realise that he is a sane and admirable man. It is Nathan Price who is mad and whose madness is smothering his family.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

The Grapes of Wrath

It's hard to say anything about  The Grapes of Wrath. It's grown far above criticism and has a life beyond itself in song, film and other books. It's so long since I read it that I half doubted whether I'd read it or just read about it. Once I started reading it passages stood out in my head like I'd only read them yesterday. Descriptions, paragraphs and events that couldn't have just come from watching the film or hearing a song.

Chapters change from a panoramic viewpoint to the particular experiences of the Joad family. Each serves to deepen our understanding of the other.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The Writing in the Sky


I have just finished watching Garry Keane's documentary on the great Irish writer Dermot Healy. He seems to have found/formed an idyll wherein to write, in a small white cottage on the Sligo coast. A solitary writer, he is also knitted in to the local community, and wider webs of writers, wildlife, friends and family.

For six months of the year his days are marked by the thousands of Barnacle Geese who fly in from their island nesting place five minutes after the sun rises and return five minutes before the sun goes down. A clock in the sky. They spend the other six months in Greenland.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

The Reader

The seventh book read in my ongoing attempt on 100+ books this year was The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink.

This is a spare philosophical novel with many layers of meaning.   A German academic is looking back over snapshots of his lifetime.  He is interrogating the meaning of particular memories and memory itself.

"I knew none of this then - if indeed I know any of it now and am not just making patterns in the air."

As a fifteen year old he became involved with an older woman. One day she left without warning. In some way he felt that he had betrayed her -  "I didn't acknowledge her."

Later he finds out more about her and his memories of his time with her are forced to change.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Come in No.6, your time is up.

Six books in thirteen days - I am still on course for 100+ books in 2011. Just need fair winds and to avoid the Doldrums.

The Shipping News is a story of... the many ways in which we are attached or detached from our lives; a journey towards mastery; how words are used and what makes a story.
Chapters are often headed by line drawings of knots and an explanation of their uses and construction. The lead character is called Quoyle, his name (coil) suggesting his detachment from his own life. Not knotted.
He drifts into a job as a local reporter. He often highlights his thoughts by dreaming up imaginary headlines, often humorously banal. "Man Walks Across Parking Lot at Moderate Pace." He seems to have no real talent for it ("It's like reading cement. Too long. Way, way, way too long. Confused. No human interest. No Quotes. Stale.") and gets married - which is a car crash in slow motion until there is a car crash. But there are two kids and he loves them.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Grass grew on The Grass Arena

Just finished watching Paul Duane's intriguing and revealing documentary about the author of The Grass Arena - one of the starkest memoirs I have read of life on society's edge. The memoir tells of his life as an Irish immigrant with a violent father, as a boxer, a wino, a convict and then remarkably as a chess prodigy in his thirties, a game he learnt in prison.

The film is called John Healy - You Have Been Warned, although it has an alternate, and more poetic title Barbaric Genius.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Fury is Five

Fury - Salman Rushdie
This started like a modern updating of Saul Bellow's Herzog, the academic in late middle age unable to stay with any woman and hurling his incohate fury at the world. It ended as a mixture between Myth, The Mouse that Roared and a theatrical farce and more besides - science fiction, child abuse, the media world, the internet...
However it suffers greatly by comparison with Bellow and is an often awkward and very uneven work. Much of the dialogue and inner thoughts seem mere paraphrases of sunday magazine speculation and the tone is uneven and unconvincing. (I did enjoy the frisson where he talks of the power having moved from cultural commentators in the seventies to advertising executives in the nineties, the opposite journey to Rushdie.) There are also constant references to Swift, Kafka, Yeats and any number of cultural touchstones.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

100+ books in 2011

As usual with New Year Resolutions (100+ books to be read this year) starting off the year is easy and I've managed to finish four novels so far this year. Whether I can keep up anything like this pace remains to be seen - I've certainly got the books stacked up and ready to go.

1. 2666 - Roberto Bolano
From visceral realism to eviscerated fables, with a title half 2001/ half Book of Revelations, with ruminations on the meaning of writing and the place of the writer in the modern, past and future days this is not a little book.
Joyce appears in the face of an Irish bellhop; the Holocaust, Stalin's purges, the savage edge of globalisation and the killing of hundreds of women in Santa Teresa in Mexico form part of the narrative.
As well as showing that he is prepared to try and wrestle meaning from our ever more haunted and haunting history Bolano shows himself as master of many styles and leaves us with a book that cannot be discounted from any serious consideration of the novel.
The five parts (Bolano thought they could be published seperately) include a rectangular affair in academia; a man falling apart in Mexico, far from home; a black reporter who gets thrown from his comfort zone into writing about boxing and thinking about serial killings; a police procedural about serial killings and a fable about a giant who wanders deep into the forests and emerges with blood on his hands and the hard won knowledge that will almost win him the Nobel Prize.

You're too bloody two faced, Janus

2010 - My virtual life grew in 2010. Decent broadband helped. Finances and being at home moved me away from newspapers and into getting most of my news online. Don't know if I'm better or worse informed.
Main sources are friends links on Facebook, thejournal.ie and the irishtimes.com site. All pretty good and the push factor from friends makes up somewhat for the danger of only reading the news you search for which is one of the dangers of the internet.