Sunday 27 March 2011

The Sunset Limited - a "huh" of a book

The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy (2006: Vintage Books. First published in the UK in 2010 by Picador). A novel written as a conversation between two men – one an ex-con ex-addict who has found God, the other a professor whose world view has led him to the brink of suicide. Between them, they debate which is more valid - the ex-con’s hope or the professor’s lack of it.
It was never going to be a cheery ride from the man that brought you No Country for Old Men and The Road. If Coldplay is “music to slit your wrists by” then Cormac McCarthy seems to be the literary equivalent. If I were his parents, I’d be worried about that boy.
Not a frown-upside-down sort of book then. But let’s not write it off entirely just because it fails in the cheeriness stakes.
It is, as the cover suggests, a “novel in dramatic form.” Which means the entire book has the look of a script. It’s easier to read than most scripts, mainly because it’s a two way dialogue set in a single room; just two voices to keep track of, 140-odd pages of a single conversation.
I did, however, breeze through it. Not entirely with a hop in my step, of course, but with a furrow of thought etched firmly on my forehead.
This is a thinker of a book, slap bang in the “really makes you think, huh” genre. The script style really works, mainly because McCarthy achieves two very distinct voices and maintains them with a strict discipline. It’s easy to forget that the two characters are products of the same mind. You really do feel like a fly on the wall of really quite an interesting conversation.
And what a conversation. The cover (rather dramatically) touts it as a debate over the meaning of life. Don’t let that put you off too much though. It’s not all grand statement and metaphysical dilemma. That does creep in of course, but McCarthy delivers the big questions (and struggling answers) in such an authentic voice that it doesn’t jar (much); it doesn’t appear too forced or unnatural.
Another tick in the credit column is the length. I think McCarthy has got this just about right. It’s a very quick read. Novella length really, and the script format means that the pages fly by. Which is needed. Dwelling on a single conversation in a single room for too long could be fatal. Similarly, tackling the themes he does without giving enough room for you to ease into it is a big danger. The book steers well between the two potential gutters.
So, it’s a clever, thought provoking, well paced, well written book. But (and it’s perhaps the biggest but outside of hip hop) it didn’t force me back into my seat. I didn’t look at it longingly, counting the seconds until I could pick it up again and have a bit of a read. When I turned the last page, I uttered out loud the kind of “huh” that is more commonly provoked by finding out I’ve got 50p more than I thought I had in my pocket. This was not a “wow, I just found a £20 note under the sofa” book.
Interesting? Yes.
Worth reading? Certainly.
Worth shouting from the roof tops about? Breathtaking? Joyful? No, no and no.
Not a bad score in the context of GBR, which is turning out to be quite a strict scale. 6 GBR is good. 6 GBR means go read it. It won’t take much time, and you’ll be glad you did.
Just don’t expect it to change your life.

p.s. Just found out the book was also made into a TV film for HBO starring Samuel L Jackson and Tommy Lee. Aired in the States in Feb apparently. Might have to try and get me a copy of that. God bless our dual region DVD player...

Sunday 20 March 2011

The Gargoyle - just get past the "love" bit

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. (Canongate Books: 2008) An epic story following the redemptive experiences of a burn victim after he meets a delusional sculptor who professes to have known him in a previous life.
A book touted on the front cover as a “romance”. Strike one
A big sticker proclaiming it as a recommendation from the Richard and Judy book club. Strike two.
A first sentence that reads Accidents ambush the unsuspecting often, violently, just like love. Strike three.
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t touch this book. But it was recommended to me by two people whose taste I trust. And something about judging books by their covers (and the inadvisability of such a course) started ringing in my ears once I was presented with a copy of it.
So I decided to take a deep breath and give it a go.
I often worry that a large part of enjoying a book is where you read it and the time you have with it. I read much of The Gargoyle in three or four hour spurts, quietly in my living room (which is one of my favourite places). Reading a book in a place that gives you the space and the peace to really read it always seems to make it better.
I said I worry about this. Because the inverse is true too. I worry that I’ve missed the point of some great books because I read them mostly in ten minute spurts between stations. I worry that I like some very average books more than some amazing ones because I read them on a beach, far away from an office.
But, good thing or bad thing, I read this book in a good place. And I enjoyed it.
There are plenty of reasons why I shouldn’t have. It’s not that the idea of love bores me. I’m very much in love myself. It’s just that artistic representations of it tend to take a wrong turn somewhere and end up in Gooey-ville.
To an extent, my initial fears were proven justified. It is indeed a love story. And I can certainly picture Richard and Judy talking it over on the couch.
But let’s get past why I shouldn’t have enjoyed this and explain why I did (and why I think you will too). This book is about 500 pages long, and there was plenty of time for it to win me over.
It’s a thoroughly well thought out story. In fact, it’s about six or seven well thought out stories. The way they interplay with each other is clever. The way the true, central story is slowly revealed is expertly achieved. It’s a long book, but I didn’t feel its length until I’d turned the last page and realised just how enveloped it The Gargoyle world I had become. Yes, the love becomes a little eye-roll-tastic sometimes, but on the whole it had me feeling more empathy than scepticism.
And it’s this guy’s first book. Which makes me more than a little jealous. It’s wildly ambitious. This guy wasn’t just trying to knock out 250 pages and get a stake in the ground for his career as a novelist. I know nothing about him, how he managed to pour so much into a book like this, how the bills were paid in the meantime, but it must have taken a great deal of belief in his talents. And it’s belief that wasn’t misplaced.
So, worthwhile of your time? Worth picking up and dedicating a few hours to?
7’s a score I tend to try and stay away from. It’s the ultimate sit-on-the fence score. It’s “I really liked it, but I’m not about to buy the t-shirt”. I enjoyed reading it. And I’m glad I did. It suppressed the stoic Brit in me for a couple of weeks. But he’s back. And he’s finding it difficult to reach above a 7 for a love story right now.

Monday 14 March 2011

The Book Thief - Darling of the commuter book club

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (Black Swan: 2007). A book set in wartime Germany and narrated by Death (a time and place when Death was, after all, pretty busy). It follows the lives of those living on an ordinary street as Germany descends into Nazism, and the bombs start falling. In particular, Death tells the story of Liesel, a nine year old girl who finds some solace in stolen books.
Reading on your commute to work every day puts you in a sort of unspoken book club. Everyone takes a furtive glance around at what everyone else is reading, and an inherent endorsement is given. See the same book being read more than once, and the endorsement grows.
There are constantly a few books that have snowballed to the point of being on pretty much every train. They’ve caught on to the extent that they essentially become “book of the month” in the commuter book club, and you can’t get on a train without seeing the same front cover stare back at you.
For my part, I usually avoid these books. I like the ones that I see once or twice; the ones that look interesting and different.
That’s not to say I’m immune to them though. My snobbery (I’m honest enough to know that’s what it is) is regularly undermined by the odd bestseller. I’ll defend John Grisham and Bernard Cornwell against most slurs. The mass market novel can be brilliant. Always entertaining, and occasionally incredibly moving.
A few years ago (2007 I think it was) The Book Thief was just that sort of book. You saw people reading it everywhere. I avoided it for a while, until I read the blurb on the back cover of a fellow commuter’s copy one day, and it intrigued me.
So I bought it. And I read it. And I was not disappointed.
It’s written in the first person, which is why I’ve picked it up to review – the book I’m currently reading is in the first person (as is the one I’m currently writing, incidentally). First person books tend to need some sort or quirk I think, and by making Death the narrator, The Book Thief certainly has that.
But that’s just the book’s first quirk. It has all the ingredients to be dangerously underwhelming. It’s set during the war. It follows the experiences of a little girl. It’s written in the first person. Cue the possibility for a cliché ridden narrative, full of manufactured heartbreak and hardship that could stick in the throat as a pale tribute to the true drama and loss of the time itself.
But Zusak avoids all this. He presumably knew the pitfalls of choosing to write a book with this background, and he ploughed on regardless. And he’s produced something that hits home in an authentic way. I don’t mean historically authentic (though I’m sure it is), I mean to say that the emotions and experiences he portrays hit the mark. You care about the girl and her life. You care about the people around her. You’re fully aware of the desperateness of Nazi Germany before you read a single page, but it’s written in such a voice and with such care that you feel you’re discovering it all for the first time. It makes you sad and angry all over again.
It’s for these reasons that I believe the book was so successful when it first came out. The issues are big, the backdrop familiar. But the treatment is original, and the emotion convincing.
All enough to earn
With a firm eye on the whole “would I recommend you to spend your time reading this” scale, I’m pretty confident with this one. It’s not going to embarrass me. If you haven’t read it already, go ahead and pick it up. If you don’t like it, tell me why not (I’m interested). And then go take a leap.

Saturday 5 March 2011

The Grapes of Wrath - an underperforming hero

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (Viking Press: 1939). An epic novel from one of America’s greatest. Steinbeck lets us into the lives of the Joad family as they are forced out of their old world and into a journey West, in search of a promised land of bountiful farming and fields laden with grapes. Their hopes of salvation are gradually revealed as false as their ordeal does its best to break the family.
Right, so now we’re playing full contact.
A rather strange opening for something as sedate as a book review, perhaps. But I really do feel like I’m playing with bigger stakes with this one.
Because this one is a Steinbeck. The first of his that I read.
John Steinbeck is perhaps my favourite all time author. I ordinarily don’t like making such statements. “What’s your favourite film?” “What’s your favourite song?” Perfectly plausible conversation starters, but they get up my nose. How on earth, out of all the infinite hours of footage that have been filmed, of the immense variety of music that has been recorded, can you sit down and settle on one single piece of art and say “this one, this is the one I value above all others. This is the one that is better in every way when put against anything else.” It just can’t be done. You can’t have a definitive favourite in a world so vast.
I heard someone say once (I honestly can’t remember who, I think it was Will Self) that if someone held a gun to my head and said “pick your favourite author, or I’ll shoot you”, then I’d let them shoot. I’d agree with him.
Unless, of course, it’s Steinbeck.
I’m not saying he’s my favourite by a mile. Not even by a hundred yards. I’ve enjoyed the work of more writers than I can think to count (but then I can’t count very high to be honest).
But he is my favourite. And that’s why my first Steinbeck review is fairly massive for me. Especially when it’s the one Steinbeck I’ve read that I didn’t actually enjoy.
The Grapes of Wrath, to me, spent an incredibly long time painting a fairly simple picture. And then retracing over the lines again and again. That’s not to say the story isn’t important. It’s a book that makes a worthy social point. It’s one that sheds light on a part of history that deserves to be flooded with attention. It’s a story whose characters you can truly sympathise with, and Steinbeck represents them in a way that makes them incredibly real.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t enjoy it. It was all a bit too real. There were few shocks. The story dripped through as these ordinary people lived through a generation changing experience.
I didn’t find myself thrilled to turn the page. I didn’t feel myself enriched by the passing chapters. I didn’t feel as if my knowledge was growing as I worked my way through. It wasn’t an instant explosion of enjoyment. And it wasn’t a slow burner either. Once I’d grasped the basic premise of the book, the point he was trying to make, I still had 400 odd pages to plough through. And I didn’t feel as if I gained anything by many of them.
So why (I hear you ask) is Steinbeck my favourite author. If he wrote this book that I just plain got bored with, why do I like him so much?
Well, by the time I finished the book (and it took me a lot of finishing) I kind of got the taste. I’d lived with it, and I felt a little dusty with it after I’d put it down. It was a little like red wine. Hated it when I first tasted it, but after a while, I decided to give it another try.
And the second time I tried Steinbeck, I became hooked. That was with East of Eden.
Now, I don’t know if East of Eden is just simply a better book. Maybe I was just more ready to appreciate Steinbeck by the time I picked that one up. Or maybe reading The Grapes of Wrath taught me how to read Steinbeck – how to understand the way he paced a story and appreciate the world he wrote about.
Either way, it leaves me in a dilemma. Do I tell you not to read The Grapes of Wrath because I didn’t enjoy it? Or do I tell you to read it because it could open a world to you that I love?
Well, it’s not that much of a dilemma to be honest. I already know the answer.
If you’ve never read Steinbeck, then don’t read The Grapes of Wrath. At least, not straight away. Read Cannery Row. Read To a God Unknown. Read The Pearl. Read Of Mice and Men. Read East of Eden. You’ll enjoy them. One day I'll review them and I'll tell you why I enjoyed them. And if you don’t enjoy them, I’d like to know why (honestly, I’d actually like to know why, I’m on the hunt for different perspectives here).
So the real dilemma is – can I bring myself to give my personal hero a low GBR score.
Yes. Yes I can.
Sorry John.
You’ll have high scores in the future. I promise.

p.s. Also, sorry no picture this week of my copy. Am filing this one from home (Newcastle that is) and so I don’t have the right cord to link my camera up to my netbook. Not a problem I imagine Steinbeck every imagined anyone having when he wrote The Grapes of Wrath. Or anything else for that matter.