Monday, 18 January 2010

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

So my reading effort of the year has its first milestone. A week ago I finished reading The Sound of One Hand Clapping, by Richard Flanagan. I got this on a whim, based on author name recognition, during a trip to the library, although when I visited Mum in Toowoomba, I remembered that she had recommended him to me a while back, partly on the historical links between her family history and his interest in Tasmania. That he is an Australian author also fits with my goal of reading more of my country's literature.

Unfortunately though, I can't really say that I loved this book. I found, especially in the first half of the book, that he really wallowed in the misery of the characters, without any sense of balance or, I suspect, realism. It felt like stacks on, and I wasn't into it. To an extent the first of these gripes was mitigated by the redemptive second half and conclusion of the book, but even so I never really developed any great affinity for or empathy with the characters. I also felt like his writing style was at times contrived and laboured. Perhaps that is partly a consequence of coming to the book having read Vonnegut, whose style is quite the opposite, but I didn't enjoy it as much. That all sounds very negative, which perhaps isn't a fair representation, since at times I did really enjoy the book, and some of the moments near the end are evocative and even emotional. I guess, though, that I had hoped for more.

Monday, 11 January 2010

2009, I hardly read you

One of my resolutions for 2009 was to read more than I had in the preceding year. Looking back now, I think I accomplished that, albeit marginally (I think I read maybe one or two more books), although it bears mentioning that I did achieve the difficult constituent ambition of reading a novel in French. I'm a little unsure as to which books I had read by the end of 2008 and which I read in 2009, but a best estimate puts the list as follows:
  • I, Claudius (Robert Graves). This historical dramatisation/embellishment was recommended (and indeed given) to me many years ago by either or both of my mother and my sister, but it took me a long time to get around to it. I am glad I did - the characters, though numerous, are interesting, the research impressive, and the stories captivating.
  • Underground (Andrew McGahan). This book was given to me when I left NICTA at the end of 2007. The story and writing are diverting enough, although not of the standard of some of the other books I read this year. Significantly, it reminded me how few Australian novels I have read.
  • Le Lion (Joseph Kessel). This book, en francais, was given to me by a french girl from a french conversation group that I was going along to. Although not particularly long, it took me many months and countless hours to read. I read it assiduously, trying to understand every word, dictionary in hand. This attention probably detracted from my opinions of the characterisation, but the setting of the story was interesting, and it is by far the best french-language novel I have read ;-)
  • FreeDarko Presents the Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac (The FreeDarko Collective). I have been a FreeDarko reader for many years now, and although my enthusiasm for the blog waxes and wanes over time, my opinion of their significance in what might be a new age for sports writing, does not. The book is a lovely distillation of their manifesto, and beautifully presented. Anyone with a love of ambitious writing, and of the zen of sport, should read this, if for no other reason than to reassure themselves that these two can be reconciled.
  • Cloudstreet (Tim Winton). I suspect this might be the first significant adult Australian novel I had read in my life. I got it from Lee, and have since passed it on to Mum. Winton's evocation of place and time reminded me of Steinbeck, and the quality of his writing and storytelling has given me a desire to better explore my country's body of literature.
  • Great Expectations (Charles Dickens). I have a strong skepticism of things both British (courtesy in no small part of my national broadcaster's infatuation with British content) and of writing more than, say, 150 years old. I refuse to read Austen, for example; I find her characterisation of both men and women to be infuriating, even if it was an accurate reflection of the times. Dickens, though, holds a stature only a rung down from the Bard in english literature, and my exposure to his works through film adaptations had given me faith that he dealt with bigger and more timeless issues. This book, of which I had seen 2 adaptations (by Mills and by Cuaron), vindicated that faith.
  • All the Pretty Horses (Cormac McCarthy). Lee lent me this book, too. I am considerably less skeptical about both American 20th century "classics", and I greatly enjoyed this one. Again, I had seen a film adaptation of this (by Billy Bob Thornton), which probably makes for a different reading experience (I knew what was going to happen), but like Cloudstreet, the writing was very good, and it had a very strong sense of place and time.
  • Anathem (Neal Stephenson). I've been a Stephenson fan for a while now, so I bought this before heading to NZ for a holiday. While it is neither as ambitious nor as good as Stephenson's preceding books (The Baroque Cycle, and Cryptonomicon), he does a pretty good job of both spinning a good fantasy yarn, and of imparting to the reader his enthusiasm for the philosophical and mathematical history that he analogizes.
  • Mother Night (Kurt Vonnegut). I am rapidly becoming a Vonnegut fan. I read one of his more recent books many years ago, but reading Cat's Cradle, this book, and more recently Slaughterhouse 5, I am learning to appreciate his succinctness, the humanity of his characters (including his remarkably passive "protagonists"), and his lightness of touch in dealing with weighty issues. I have hopes, too, that I will succeed in introducing his writing to my sisters.
  • Of The Farm (John Updike). This was one of a pile of books I borrowed from the library for the summer holiday. Updike is a big name to which I had no associations of style or subject. Although I did enjoy this novella (a format I'm coming to like), I will look for more of his stuff not because I found this a great book, but because I did not.
  • Slaughterhouse 5 (Kurt Vonnegut). What a great way to end the year. We unearthed this (among other books) from our late uncle's remarkable collection, while visiting Mullum, and I can see why it has its reputation as Vonnegut's most significant book. It is a remarkable story that led him to write this, and it is equally remarkable that the story lead to this book, which deals with Dresden in a truly unexpected, and yet very genuine way. I really like the way he can tell such strange yet very telling stories, in so few pages of seemingly very simple writing.
A good year's reading. I hope to read more novels again in 2009, and will hopefully blog about the first of them soon.