Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Recent Reading

For someone who rarely reads much other than fiction, I seem to have found myself reading outside of my usual comfort zone lately. For starters, I read Where Underpants Come From by Joe Bennett for my book club. Bennett has written an account of his search for the source of the unbelievably cheap underpants he buys at his local department store in New Zealand. The book becomes a kind of investigation of the crazily successful Chinese manufacturing industry, and of the Chinese economy and culture more broadly. Where Underpants Come From is an engaging read and is sometimes quite funny but I found Bennett's innocent-abroad persona a bit grating after a while. He seems to feel that because he is an amateur that he doesn't really need to go beyond superficial insights or do much research. While it's interesting to read about his experiences in remote parts of China, I couldn't help but think that there must be more thoughtful books on Chinese culture available.

I've also finished Michael Chabon's books of essays called Maps and Legends. Those of you who follow this blog will know that I love Chabon's fiction and I was happy to find that I also enjoy his thoughts on other people's writing and the process of being a writer. Chabon has twin fixations, genre fiction and his Jewish heritage, and he brings together these elements in the fantastic final essay entitled Golems I Have Known, or Why My Elder Son's Middle Name is Napoleon. In the essay he uses the idea of the golem as a metaphor for creating fiction and he plays with the idea of truth and its relationship to fiction. Other essays cover such topics as Arthur Conan Doyle, the short story, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, Cormac McCarthy's The Road and various moments in the author's own creative life. I found myself agreeing with Chabon's championing of genre fiction and, as always, enjoying his writing style and humour. In one particular passage Chabon writes about the influence of science fiction on his own writing in a particularly lovely way:
I wanted to tell stories, the kind with set pieces and long descriptive passages, and "round" characters, and beginnings and middles and ends. And I wanted to instill- or rather I didn't want to lose- that quality, inherent in the best science fiction, that was sometimes called "the sense of wonder." If my subject matter couldn't do it- if I wasn't writing about people who sailed through neutron stars or harnessed suns together- then it was going to fall to my sentences themselves to open up the heads of my readers and decant into them enough crackling plasma to light up the eye sockets for a week.

Happily, I think he has achieved that rather ambitious aim.

I'm now half-way through Jonathan Franzen's The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History which is a collection of autobiographical essays, so far mostly about Franzen's rather fraught and anxious childhood and adolescence. There are some similarities to the Chabon book; both authors share a middle class, suburban upbringing and are roughly the same age, and both tend to write in a slightly self-mocking but ultimately confident style. However, where Chabon focuses on writing and books, both his own and those of others who have influenced him, Franzen's book is much more a straight down the line autobiography. So far I'm really enjoying The Discomfort Zone. Franzen has a way of capturing the painful awkwardness of adolescence that I could really relate to. He also captures the relationship between a child and their parents so accurately that it made me wince. These are the same things I remember liking about The Corrections and so I imagine fans of that book would enjoy this smaller, more intimate and personal piece of writing.

When I finish Franzen, I'm determined to get back into some fiction so top of the list is M.J. Hyland's Carry Me Down which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year (or the year before?). I have to admit though, I have enjoyed my little side trip into non-fiction and I might well find myself back here before long.


Anonymous said...

I've wanted to read Chabon's book for awhile not, but the first one sounds very interesting.

Sarah said...

I'm a habitual fiction reader as well. I do plan on reading Maps and Legends one of these days!