Sunday, December 16, 2007

Favourite Books of the Year

The end of the year is coming and I'm not reading anything too exciting right now so I think it's safe to comment on my favourite reads of 2007. None of them are particularly current as I rarely read new releases, but I loved all of the following:

The Orchid Thief (Susan Orlean): This work of non-fiction was a real revelation to me. I don't read much non-fiction and I had no interest in orchids so I was surprised at how much I loved Susan Orlean's tale of, well, just about everything to do with orchids. The book is a brilliant character study of the collector John LaRoche and a fascinating description of Florida. It's also ten times more interesting than my description of it. Just trust me on this one.

Cold Mountain (Charles Frazier): I raved about this book at the time and it has stayed with me. Just thinking about the ending has me on the verge of tears. Don't let the dodgy film version put you off. Wonderful writing and a beautiful story. An incredible first novel.

Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf): I've just written about this so I won't say much other than Woolf is a genius and this is deservedly a classic.

Special mentions also go to I Capture the Castle, the classic young adult novel by Dodie Smith, American Pastoral by Philip Roth and Disgrace by JM Coetzee.

It's a strange list of quite disparate books but probably a good reflection of what I've been reading this year. There are some big holes though, such as not reading many pre-twentieth century novels, so now I'm off to formulate my next post: reading plans for 2008...

Monday, December 10, 2007

On Finishing Mrs Dalloway

It's taken me forever but I finally finished Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway on Sunday. Actually I'm glad I took forever over this novel. It is so deliciously, wonderfully written that I think it's best savoured in little pieces. All at once might overload the system.

I think Mrs Dalloway is about as perfect as a novel gets and because I'm so attached to it, I'm a little bit nervous about really trying to review it and maybe not being able to do it justice. Perhaps instead I'll just list a few things I found interesting without trying to be in any way comprehensive.

Firstly, I'm really fascinated by the character of Clarissa Dalloway. She is so flawed- flighty, at times fickle, snobbish, even callous- but on the other hand so magnetic and charismatic. She seems simultaneously frustrated with her life and exhilarated by it, in love with Peter but also dismissive of him, class conscious but also horrified by the superficiality of the aristocracy. I think this makes her more real than many other characters in fiction, the very fact that she changes her mind from moment to moment and is not a personality composed of a fixed list of qualities.

I really enjoyed the style in which this novel is written too. Woolf captures the way the mind works so accurately that I felt I was reading the minds of the characters. The free associations and the sudden switching of topic and mood seemed so natural and realistic.

Towards the end I began to think this is a novel about aging, about looking over your life with a certain amount of experience and re-assessing the powerful moments from your youth. I liked that the aging process did not dull sensation for Clarissa. In fact, she seemed more sensitive and more insightful than she had ever been as a young woman.

Finally, nobody does descriptive writing quite like Woolf. Here is another wonderful image (of the sun setting) and it seems a good way to end this post:

I resign, the evening seemed to say, as it paled and faded above the battlements and prominences, moulded, pointed, of hotel, flat, and block of shops, I fade, she was beginning, I disappear, but London would have none of it, and rushed her bayonets into the sky, pinioned her, constrained her to partnership in her revelry.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

We Need to Talk About Kevin

When it first came out in 2003 everyone seemed to be reading We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. As usual, I'm a couple of years late and have only just gotten around to reading this novel on the tentative advice of a friend who didn't enjoy it much herself.

For anyone else who missed out on it as it swept the bestseller lists, We Need to Talk About Kevin is the letters of a mother, Eva Khatchadhourian, to her husband Franklin. The letters are written after their son, Kevin, has murdered 12 people in a Columbine-style school shooting, and in the letters Eva trawls back through the process of deciding to have a child, Kevin's birth and childhood and his devastating crime, referred to only as Thursday by Eva.

When I began this novel I absolutely hated it. The subject matter is sensational and it seemed that in making Eva unlikable, the author was writing a definitively anti-feminist novel. Shriver explores how far parents are responsible for shaping their children and I worried that she might unfairly blame the mother who initially is depicted as selfish, cold and certainly unenthusiastic about her new-born child.

Shriver's awkward style was also infuriating at first. If these are meant to be letters, they are so painfully and self-consciously written as to seem totally unrealistic. A typical sentence reads: 'It may have been disingenuous of me to imply at the start of my last letter that when we conferred at the end of a day, I told all.'

But somehow I could not put this book down, and I'm pleased that I didn't. Shriver's writing style is never elegant but it reflects certain aspects of her narrator's character and it becomes less jarring over time. More importantly, the philosophical terrain covered becomes more and more compelling as the novel goes on. Initially Kevin is depicted as a purely (and unbelievably) evil child but as he develops we see that there is more to him and realise that Eva is possibly manipulating us by presenting only her side of the story. Eva is not a perfect mother but nor is Franklin, the father, who is blindly optimistic about Kevin and refuses to confront the truth about his son. Shriver refuses to lay blame, avoiding simplistic conclusions about why a child from a relatively happy, privileged background might become the perpetrator of a horrific crime. This concept reminded me of Philip Roth's American Pastoral which covers similar terrain, albeit in a more sophisticated way.

Like Roth, Shriver also examines the idea of America (as opposed to the physical country). Eva rejects her homeland as crass and unsophisticated whereas her husband Franklin is the ultimate patriot, driving his SUV, watching baseball games and trying to develop a pally relationship with his son, as though life can be like a cheesy 1950's sitcom if only you try hard enough. Ultimately both parents are proved to be flawed in their attitudes to their country and in their attitudes to their son.

This is a flawed novel and in part Shriver plays on the sensational subject matter and the fears of middle class parents everywhere. On the other hand, who hasn't wondered what motivates crimes like these and it seems important that we as a society confront these issues head on. Shriver doesn't provide answers but she does begin to explore the issue in an interesting, thought-provoking way.