Friday, November 17, 2006

Reading: The October Backlog

  • Knut Hamsun's Hunger
  • Ian McEwan's Saturday
  • Cormac McCarthy's The Road
  • Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
  • Robertson Davies' Fifth Business

I was on a roll w/r/t good reading in October, then I hit a couple of disappointing books, then a couple I didn't even want to finish, all of which slowed the ol' blogging down. (I only list here the books I finish, and I only write about the ones I find interesting. Interpret that as you may.) I think this is everything I finished; I may have missed a book.

Continuing my fascist writers theme, I read Knut Hamsun's Hunger last month. I got interested in Hamsun after reading this New Yorker article a while back. You should really check out the article if you are at all interested in writers and eccentrics. Eccentric he was, maybe even insane. He won a Nobel prize for Literature, which he gave to Goebbels during the Nazi occupation of Norway. His nationalism and, apparently, his admiration for the Nazis seem to have been fueled largely by an extreme hatred of the English. What a freak!

So is Hunger any good? You betcha. I thought it was hilarious, and I wish I could get the Little Lady to read it. It's exactly her brand of bitter humor. Think Underground Man, Henry Miller, and Bukowski (the fiction), but more capital-M Modern. Oh, you want to know what it's about? It's a seres of vignettes about being underfed and underemployed in Christiana (now Oslo) in the late nineteenth century. The narrator is an eccentric, perhaps even crazy, writer. Etc. Oh, and it's short.

I listened to McEwan's Saturday on CD in the car. I was really impressed/jealous of the way McEwan captures the minutiae of consciousness, without being boring, and how he ties the attention he gives consciousness into the theme and the action of the novel. Great characterization too, and no, that's not the same thing as capturing the minutiae of consciousness. (Character is built out of the decisions characters make.) Anyway, I'm going to be looking for some more McEwan to read soon, but I probably won't be listening to it on CD. When someone cuts you off on the Interstate, it becomes difficult to follow the details of, say, a brain surgeon's relationship with his adult daughter and her poetry.

I should also say, that I didn't find Saturday a perfect book. The story is built on so many coincidences that it loses some credibility, and McEwan went to central casting for the bad guys. But in the end I still loved this book the same way I love some other works of art that don't quite manage to integrate all of their elements--say Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors or Huck Finn or Great Expectations or Linklater's Slacker. Those are some of my favorite books/movies, though, despite the flaws.

Speaking of favorites, The Road is probably my new favorite McCarthy book. I know, I know. That probably requires some explaining, given the existence of Suttree and Blood Meridian. Let me just say those last two are probably the better books, that is they're bigger achievements, but The Road, which is at its heart an existential look at fatherhood, moved and involved me more than any other of McCarthy's books.

It's also a post-apocalyptic novel. I'm a big fan of the genre, and as an example of its kind, this ranks right up there with A Canticle for Leibowitz and Tom De Haven's Sunburn Lake. Anyway, you may or may not agree with me that this is your favorite McCarthy book, but if you're a fan, I expect you'll at least agree it's a return to form for McCarthy. Out of his previous books, The Road most reminds me of Outer Dark.

That's all I've got to say about books for now.


  1. Imported on behalf of: McIhaveasickdaughter
    So Curious Incident... was uninteresting?

  2. Imported on behalf of: McI'mnotprogramminginhtml

    I mean **goddammit**.

  3. Imported on behalf of: Lee
    I found it compelling at first, but it didn't really hold my interest. Sort of spun its wheels character-wise, and I never really believed either of the parents.

  4. Imported on behalf of: Lee
    Also, what's up with the daughter?

    Since pre-school started up, our kids are pretty much always a little sick. And now it's my turn.

  5. Imported on behalf of: Mike Jasper
    Heh -- our youngster has had a runny nose since the start of preschool in September!

    Now I've gotta go check out The Road -- I was waiting for the Lee Capps seal of approval. I may try to listen to the audio version. His stuff is great on the ear.

  6. Imported on behalf of: Lee Capps
    Hey, MIke--I'd think *The Road* would be excellent in an audio version, though you should at least look at the text version. I didn't mention it above, but the text is arranged in an interesting way---blocks of text split up sort of like scenes and sort of like paragraphs. I guess what they most remind me of are cantos in a long narrative poem like the *The Faerie Queene*, though that's the beginning and end of this book's resemblance to *The Faerie Queene*!

    I'm actually home from work sick, hoping to be better before turkey day, damn this pre-school crud.

  7. Imported on behalf of: McI
    The young'n in this household had a fever for four days over the Thanksgiving break. So much for resting up.

    I remember being pulled through *Curious Incident* rather quickly, though this was partly because it was short and pretty much like reading a young adult novel. Reminded me (precisely why, I can't remember) quite a bit of *About a Boy*, which makes me wonder if you saw the same shortcomings you saw in the Hornby. I believe you called the older "boy" a "cipher" (er, cypher, since Brit?) in that one. Have you read *The Wasp Factory* (Iain Banks, no M.)?

  8. Imported on behalf of: McI
    (*Wasp Factory* was something Aitken pointed me to.)

  9. Imported on behalf of: Lee
    I've picked up *The Wasp Factory* several times over the years, but never got around to reading it. What did you think of it?

    Another Aitken favorite: *The Magnificent Ambersons.*

    *Curious Incident* is a perfectly fine book. I guess I wanted it to go vertical (character), and instead, Haddon keeps it horizontal, chugging through the plot. Perhaps the writer is a little to blame for so vividly and convincingly getting into the narrator's head. I read this as a promise that we were going to really plumb the depths. (This is always difficult to pull off, and would be even more difficult in the case of this book's subject, I grant.) He did the minimum to give the book a satisfying third act.

    *About a Boy* is similar to *Incident* in that both are rather "high concept" stories, but, whereas the latter establishes a character, then sort of peters out, the former is uniformly thin on character. That's how I remember it anyway; it's been a while. To be fair, Hornby was clearly making a light book. It didn't disappoint me by failing to fulfill promises; it only disappointed in failing to be another *High Fidelity*, which is not fair in the extreme, or "to the max," as the kids say.

  10. Imported on behalf of: McI
    I rather liked *Wasp Factory*, but probably part of that is that it functions sort of as wish fulfillment of the childhood adventures I wish I'd had (only sort of, though, you'll see as you read).

    I probably mostly read plot-driven novels these days (on the rare occasion I do get to read them), because they typically "move" faster (feel accomplished finishing them) and require less concentration (which is necessary for my work's scholarly/textbook/source readings). The last character-centered novel I can remember reading was *The Corrections*, which was fantastic.

  11. Imported on behalf of: Lee
    I loved *The Corrections*. The parents' section was a bit dodgy, but the rest was a hoot.

    Adventure, wish-fulfillment, and plot are not dirty words around here. Sometimes you feel like climbing a mountain; sometimes you feel like coasting down the other side--especially after you have a kid.

    You ever read the Gormenghast novels by Mervyn Peake? They lie somewhere in the middle of our two poles here. I thought they were amazing, weird, funny books.

  12. Imported on behalf of: McI
    You mean the characterization of the *Corrections* parents or THE BIG SECRET THAT SHAPED THE REST OF THEIR LIVES?

    I hadn't laughed so hard at a book since the booger scene (among others) in *Nobody's Fool*, which was probably the funniest book since *High Fidelity*.

    David Langford pushes the Gormenghast novels often, but I still haven't gotten around to them. Are they thick? Just can't make myself read hefty fantasy novels any more. (Yeah, yeah, *Little Big* must be read.)

    And I'm not self-denigrating, or putting down plot-centric stuff; I was just thinking I might've over-rated *The Wasp Factory* for reasons mentioned.

  13. Imported on behalf of: McI
    *Nobody's* and *Straight Man* are pretty close in quality; much better than his other (2?) efforts. Interesting you should bring it up, *Straight Man* was one in a spate of academic novels I read alongside the Hynes book.

    Not sure I'm sold on Dickensian grotesques--if I even know quite what you mean--though I loved Tim Powers' *Anubis Gates*. My mother and I talked a long time this last week about *Tale of Two Cities* as history, and what Dickens' opinion of the Revolution was. I'd never thunk on it before, but it's **bad** history.

  14. Imported on behalf of: Lee
    Grotesque just means the characters are a little cartoon-y. After I made that comment, I went and looked at my copy of the Gormenghast books. Turns out I was quoting a blurb from the *Washington Post*, which is embarrassing--turns out I not only read blurbs, at least twice this time, but I somehow retain them. Anyway, I think the grotesques might be a little closer to Flannery O'Connor or Nathanael West after more reflection. They're more mean-spirited than Dickens.

    Haven't read the Powers or *Two Cities*. (Yeah, I know.) Dickens' books were often motivated by some political or social cause, or some idea he wanted promulgate. These are generally the least interesting things about the books, says I. Who cares about Victorian tort reform now? (Please don't tell me who cares; this is a rhetorical question.) But *Bleak House* is still a cool book.