Friday, 26 August 2011

45/111 – Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

This is another graphic novel I got while I was working for Vintage. I took it based on the recommendation of a couple of colleagues from Waterstone’s, and also on the basis that there aren’t that many graphic novels written by women. AND it’s non-fiction, to top it all off.

I felt kind of ‘meh’ about this, and I’m not sure why. The story is auto-biographical, and subject matter mainly consists of Alison reflecting on the death/suicide of her father in her early twenties, coupled with the discovery around the same time that she herself is a lesbian and that her father was a closeted gay man.

The book is a series of reflections and links back into her childhood, exploring possible clues and threads that she attempts to link with her own experiences coming to know that she’s a gay woman. It’s pretty nicely done, in all, and towards the end there are some great bits exploring links with the literature she and her father both loved (like Homer’s Odyssey, and Joyce’s Ulysses), however most of the references were kind of lost on me, since I was never a fan of either.

I liked this a decent amount, I guess, but it didn’t evoke any strong feelings in me at all, and therefore I can’t really think of anything else to write about.

Next: Bed by David Whitehouse

Sunday, 21 August 2011

44/111 – The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger

Got a little sidetracked with this one before I hit Fun Home. This is a book I picked up when I was working for Vintage. Strictly speaking, I probably shouldn’t have taken it, since it wasn’t a new book or anything, but I’m a huge Audrey Niffenegger fan, so fuck it.

It’s a very short comic, but apparently is part of a larger work, so maybe there’ll be more to come in the future. Niffenegger is notorious for writing slowly, so there might not be anything new from her for a while yet, I guess.

The story follows Lexi, a young woman, who one night comes across a Winnebago full of books. When she enters the Bookmobile, she realises that every book on the shelves is made up of books that she’s read throughout her life. In fact, it catalogues everything that she’s ever read, even cereal boxes and letters. She’s mesmerised by the Bookmobile and the idea of it. She grows more obsessed with it, and it’s not until nine years later that she sees it again, with all the added books she’s accumulated since that time.

It’s really a very appropriate book for me to have read for this project, since it’s all about the attraction and power of books and reading, and the way in which they shape us.  At one point, Lexi says:

“In the same way that perfume captures the essence of a flower, these shelves of books were a distillation of my life.”

It’s pretty true, for me. I find myself able to recall what was going on in my life during certain books, or where I was, what I was doing, when I bought them. This project is just an extension of that idea, I guess.

Lexi becomes consumed by the idea of becoming a librarian in the Bookmobile, however is told that this isn’t possible. In her real life, she studies hard and becomes the director of a huge library, but she still isn’t satisfied. After killing herself, she finds herself standing with the librarian of her Bookmobile, Mr. Openshaw, who congratulates her and assigns her a little girl who has just read her first book. I really love the idea that you could have a sort of guardian angel for reading who oversees your entire reading life.

In her afterword, Niffenegger asks a couple of questions that I don’t really know how to answer: ‘What is it we desire from the hours, weeks, lifetimes we devote to books?’ I don’t really know what it is I’m looking for. Why do I love reading so much? Escapism? Knowledge? I don’t know what it is, but I do know that when I read the back of a book for the first time, when I hold it in my hands, I just get this urge, this pull to have it and to possess it and to read it.

The other question she asks sends a spooky little chill down my spine: ‘What would you sacrifice to sit in that comfy chair with the perfect light for an afternoon in eternity, reading the perfect book, forever?’

Quite a lot, I think.

Next: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

43/111 – Go To Sleep by Helen Walsh

This is another Canongate purchase from last week. I also had really high hopes for this one, and I would like to stress at the outset that if this had not been a Canongate book, then I most likely would not have chosen to read it, because it’s pretty far out of my interests.

Rachel has become pregnant after a one-night stand with an old flame, and has decided to keep the baby. Sounds like total chick-lit, but I decided to go with it, because it promised to be quite dark and maybe even interesting. The opening of the novel sees her pottering around, still heavily pregnant and daydreaming about how fucking awesome it’s going to be to become a mother. Already, the narration and the character are annoying me.

The narration flips between the current day, and to flashbacks of Rachel’s adolescence, to her early relationship with Rueben, the father of her baby. It flips between these passionate encounters and her struggles with the baby, (named Joe), once he’s born. When she gives birth, Rachel is horrified to find that she feels nothing for Joe, and she starts to go a bit nuts. She has trouble breastfeeding him and getting him to sleep, and is convinced that he cries harder when she picks him up, and that he’s pretending to be good when other people are around. Classic post-natal depression stuff.

The synopsis of the book seems to suggest that something pretty dark is going to happen, that maybe Rachel is going to hurt herself or the new baby. I wouldn’t say I had been holding out for that possibility, but I would have definitely found it more interesting than the total and utter blandness that ensued.
I couldn’t find a single thing to like about this book, except for the cover design. The main character is an insipid, dull woman. The writing is clumsy, and the plot totally wastes an opportunity to explore a genuinely dark subject in an interesting way. There’s even a page at the end of the novel titled: Six Months Later, which shows Rachel all happy with Joe. Walsh might as well have just ended the novel with ‘she woke up and it was all a dream’, and be done with it.

Maybe I would have found this book more interesting if I had a baby, but it was just so dull. It’s full of problems that are not problems, and weird outbursts, and everything about the writing feels forced, unnatural and amateurish. I pretty much skimmed the last 100 pages, because I wanted to stick with it and see if anything interesting would actually happen, or if it was going to remain totally vanilla. I found the writing to be very shallow, too. There were some attempts at making the characters more complex and multi-faceted, but it was just executed so poorly. For example the author seems to go to great lengths to portray Rachel as a modern, independent and maybe even edgy woman. She even says 'fuck' once in a while and the father of the baby is a black dude. Shocking? No, not shocking, just offensively dull.

So yeah, that’s what I meant when I said that I wouldn’t have bought this if it hadn’t been published by Canongate. Since their stuff tends to usually be quite quirky, I thought it might actually do well at pushing some boundaries. Instead, this novel is bland and dull. There’s nothing even remotely dark in there – Rachel doesn’t even come close to hurting the baby. The closest she comes is taking a couple of sleeping pills herself and then dreaming that she leaves him by a lake. The whole time I just wanted to shake her and shout at her ‘BE MORE INTERESTING!’.

Hopefully the next one will be: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

42/111 – Grow Up by Ben Brooks

I went on a bit of a shopping spree recently. I was feeling the urge for a new book, and I ended up buying a few within a few days of each other. They just so happened to all be published by Canongate, who I like quite a bit. Their fiction always seems to be a lovely mixture of quirky and disturbing and touching, and I also think they do fantastic book design. There’s just something about their books that makes me want to pick them up and touch them. The three that I picked up all have a kind of matt texture, and a bit of folded inwards cover with the blurb on it. There’s probably a proper word for it, but I don’t know it.

I decided to start off with Grow Up. I was not too thrilled with the endorsement from Noel Fielding, because I hate The Mighty Boosh, but I thought that he probably didn’t really read it anyway.
The story follows Jasper, a teenage boy, who should be studying for his A-levels, but instead spends all his time thinking about Georgia, taking drugs and thinking of ways to prove that his stepfather is a murderer. The whole novel is told from Jasper’s point of view, and the narrations has a Curious-Dog feel to it in that Jasper clearly views the world in a very different way to most people.

I really liked this, and there were a lot of moments that made me laugh, which is a little unusual for me in a book. Brooks has a way of phrasing things that I found genuinely delightful, so for your enjoyment I’m going to list a few of my favourite phrases:

“They spill out over the top like the foreheads of curious children.” – referring to someone’s breasts.

“I can only hope that the future will tame the wild horses in my eyes.”

“Get an abortion, Abby, or else I will put a horse head on my head and come into your room late at night.”

There’s not a great deal to the actual story – Jasper is obsessed with Georgia, but gets Abby pregnant after a one-night stand. The action revolves around a series of parties and drug-taking incidents, and in his clumsy way, Jasper tries to take care of his friend Tenaya, whose parents are alcoholics and who self-harms after her boyfriend cheats on her. All pretty standard teenage drama and white-people-problems.

As I said, my main enjoyment from this book came from the phrasing and the internal narration of Jasper’s thoughts. I kind of wish the plot had had a little more going for it, but I don’t think that was really the point of the book. I enjoyed it a lot, but had the book been any longer, I think I would have eventually lost the drive to continue to read about characters I didn’t really care about. The writing is excellent, though, and the book's atmosphere feels really genuine. Which would make sense, considering that the author is only nineteen himself, and already has several other books in print. I would even say that his age is a credit to him, because even though I’ve heard people making comparisons between Grow Up and Skins, there’s none of the over-privileged nastiness in there. Jasper is a moron, and sometimes insensitive and cruel, but I couldn’t help develop a little soft spot for him.

Grow Up is a great little quirky coming-of-age novel, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for more Ben Brooks in future.

Next: Go To Sleep by Helen Walsh

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

41/111 – World War Z by Max Brooks

I haven’t really been enjoying reading so much lately. I’ve been stressed with work, and I’ve started a new job, etc etc. However I’ve recently started looking at books again and getting that feeling I used to have. That feeling where I have to keep turning the pages, and where I go into a bookshop, look at the new books and my hands itch to pick up something new and amazing.

I’ve been talking a lot more about books in the real world, too. Mostly with people from work, which is really what prompted me to read World War Z, even though I read it a couple of years ago.

It’s really excellent.

It’s by the same dude who wrote the Zombie Survival Guide, which I’ve never really looked through. It’s pretty much an oral history set at some point in the indeterminate future, in which the world is recovering from a zombie holocaust. I’m already a big fan of zombie culture, so I had a pretty good idea that I was going to enjoy this book, but it was brilliant in a way I hadn’t expected.

There is no narrator or characters, as such. The book is laid out as a non-fiction collection of interviews, vignettes and monologues from people all over the world and with different roles and experiences of their time during what they call the Great Panic. It’s very journalistic in style, which was a surprise for me, but was extremely enjoyable. Each section gives you only the briefest glimpse into what it was like for each person, which can be a little tantalising and frustrating, but I think that Brooks really manages to pull it off. The interviews are utterly convincing and human.

Another thing he does really well is portraying this disaster in a realistic way. It’s not gory or slapstick in the way that zombie movies sometimes can be. He seems to have considered every angle in ways that I had never even considered. For example there’s a great passage from an astronaut who happened to be based in a space station at the time of the apocalypse, and another very moving section based on a submarine. There are some amazing stories of heroism, as well as stories of the more scummy side of humanity.

This is a really excellent book, and I’m pretty excited to hear that it’s being made into a film. The reason I decided to read this again is that I’d been talking to someone at work about it, and was going to let them borrow it. But just talking about it had suddenly made me feel quite excited about the possibility of reading it again, so I decided to read it myself first. Well worth the second read.

Next: Grow Up by Ben Brooks