Sunday, March 30, 2008

Secrets and Awkwardness

There is a nice symmetry in my reading at the moment. I have just finished Open Secrets by Alice Munro and am now about half-way through Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach and it occurs to me that both books deal with the quiet and awkward moments between people that are not often the subject of 'great' art.

Munro's short stories are wonderfully thought-provoking. She knows just when to end a story, finding the balance between some sort of resolution and still leaving the reader with something to think about. Her stories in this collection all revolve around interesting and often unconventional female characters, particularly women who are unconventional in their sex lives. She finds drama and poetry in the everyday. I loved her deceptively simple writing style and unique perspective on small town life, and I will be reading some more of her work very soon.

I still haven't made up my mind about On Chesil Beach. So far I'm enjoying McEwan's writing, as I have in his other novels. The situation is interesting- two young people on their wedding night in the early '60s, both of whom are sexually inexperienced and ignorant in a way that seems incredible today. My reservation at the moment is that he seems to be saving the lion's share of sexual dysfunction for the female character and somehow that seems unfair. I'll wait until I finish the book before I say any more, however.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Recent Reading

I've once again let my reading overtake my blogging, so I thought I might do a kind of catch up post rather than write at length about the last couple of novels that I've read. So here goes...

Some of you might have read my whinge about Bel Canto a couple of posts ago. Well, I finished it and suffice to say my opinion did not change. Ann Patchett's novel left me very cold. A part of why I didn't like it was that I though it was incredibly unrealistic, however on Friday night I watched a documentary about the hostage siege that Patchett used as inspiration and found out that she stuck surprisingly close to what actually happened in Lima, Peru. The Japanese embassy there was taken by a group who wanted to capture the President. When the President wasn't there the group got stuck with a huge group of hostages and no exit strategy. In some ways the real drama was crazier than the fictional version. In real life the hostages even went so far as to allow the press into the embassy for interviews during the siege. Amazing. Unfortunately I still don't like the novel.

After Bel Canto, Engleby by Sebastian Faulks was refreshing, if you can use that word to describe a novel about a seriously disturbed person. It was refreshing for its originality, black humour and unflinching examination of a very dark subject. It's hard to talk too much about this one without ruining it, although I think most readers would find the ending of the novel fairly unsurprising. Faulks' narrator, Mike Engleby, must be one of the most interesting and well-drawn characters in recent fiction. I felt confronted and disturbed by this book, but in a good way!

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield was much hyped on its release, in part because so many bloggers were given it for free, thus sparking a debate about the ethics of declaring or not declaring where you get your books from before you write about them. For the record, I bought my copy fair and square at a book fair last week. The Thirteenth Tale is fun Gothic mystery/ romance. It's very readable and fairly insubstantial. I had hoped for something cleverer from a book that is so concerned with reading and writing. Unfortunately I felt that Setterfield was somewhat milking an audience that she knew would be interested in a book about a young women writing the autobiography of an older, very famous author who has finally decided to 'tell her story' after a lifetime of weaving fiction.

And now I'm deeply absorbed by Alice Munro's collection of short stories, Open Secrets. I've been meaning to read something by Munro for so long and am glad to find her exactly as interesting as has been claimed by others. The stories in this collection so far offer a thoughtful perspective on ordinary lives, pointing out the extraordinary in small town, domestic life. The intricate level of observation reminds me of Annie Proulx in some ways, but the writing is more direct and less heavy with imagery. I can't wait to read the rest of this book.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Here, Bullet

Last year I heard an interesting interview by Philip Adams on Radio National with American war poet Brian Turner. Turner has served in Iraq and his poetry describes his experiences there. During the interview he read the title poem from his collection of poetry, Here, Bullet. I found it moving and confronting. To say he reminds me a little of Wilfred Owen might be going too far, but there is something of the same feeling of immediacy. You can find out more about Turner here.

Here, Bullet

If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.