Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Reading the 80s - 1983

Second person singular (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller – Italo Calvino).

First published in English in 1983 (Italian 1980), this book is so experimental it should, by rights, be annoying. That it isn’t is a tribute to both Italo Calvino and William Weaver, who has translated the text into English. 

A very large amount of it is written in second person singular, and the bits that aren’t are mostly first chapters  - fifteen or ten, or six or seven pages – of different books that the ‘You’ that Calvino is addressing gets to read before something goes awry and reading gets interrupted and in searching for a complete version of his lost book 'You' find another book and the process begins again.

There are also a number of characters – other readers – who pop up from time to time to describe what they want from a book, or how they read, or various shenanigans around censorship and so on, and although these are all supposedly different people that forms a kind of dialogue which holds the many different stories that you get to start (but not finish) together.    

In less talented hands this would all be quite unbearable. With Calvino there’s a feeling that he isn’t just doing it to be difficult. That there is a reason, and that he can hold your interest even with such an complicated and unpromising premise. 

It is the loosest of holds though. I said in an earlier post that I put this book down about halfway through before and just didn’t pick it up again, not because I didn’t enjoy it but because it’s an easy book to do that with. There are any number of stopping places, and I found the ‘what happens next’ drive didn’t kick in for me until very near the end.

As a book from the 80s? I don't think it is particularly, although perhaps I'd need a better knowledge of the literature of Cuba (where Calvino was born) or Italy (where he grew up and wrote) before I could judge. The main ‘You’ is a man, which was occasionally disorientating, but there is also a parallel and balancing female reader, and often I got the sense it was her that the author was really writing for – frustrated that he could not read her mind well enough to understand what it is she really wanted to read. Perhaps because she doesn’t know herself until she picks a book up. That’s just the kind of reader she is. 

Susan Hill – The Woman in Black

I don't feel like I gave this book a fair chance. Reading it in the sunshine in the park, and then on public transport, was not at all conducive to letting a ghost story give me the appropriate chills.

Pluses include; that it's very well written and paced and held my attention, and the attitude and internal dialogue of the central character is entirely believable. The other characters are at least as fleshed out as needed for such a short story.

But I didn't believe in the ghost and I predicted the end. So although I could appreciate the book as a lovely piece of craft, and thoroughly enjoyed it as such, it didn't quite deliver for me.  

Next year up is 1984, about which I said 'Anything but The Wasp Factory' and still haven't made up my mind. To get a real flavour of the year it should probably be Jeffrey Archer, who I have never actually read, Deathtrap Dungeon, which I have, Brother in the Land (which I haven't read since I was 11 or 12 and don't really want to read again because it's depressing) and The One Minute Manager.  

Or perhaps I should stop thinking about what I remember the flavour of 1984 being (mostly findus crispy pancakes and blue slush puppies, if memory serves), and go completely random, pulling books off the shelves of second hand bookshops and libraries until I find something I never knew I wanted to read. 

Calvino would approve, I think.

As ever if any of the very small amount of people who read this want to join in, please feel free to link/post your own reviews below. I will be back in 1984 on the 15th of next month. 

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Obligatory shots of the Alhambra

I have also tried to draw it, but luckily I haven't got a scanner with me, so I don't have to post it until I've had another go. Or six.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

London Rectangles

The Royal Oak Pub (closed) North Woolwich 

Ceiling, Banqueting House

Windowbox, Kensington

Graffiti, North Woolwich

Graffiti, Islington

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Reading the 80s - 1982

I only managed two books for this challenge this month - but the first wasn't something I'd usually read, so I'm quite pleased about that.

Stephen King - The Dark Tower I (The Gunslinger).

To be honest I was surprised how much I enjoyed this.

It starts, or seems to start, with the good guy chasing the bad guy across the desert. Predictably enough the good guy is the guy with the gun (or rather, two guns) and the bad guy is in black and does evil magics. We also learn that the world has moved on - for which read falling apart - and the gunslinger is on a quest which may have something to do with fixing it, or finding out what's going on.

All of which would normally make me balk a bit - I have a healthy dose of cynicism about quests and heroes that bludgeon their way through the world leaving destruction behind them because their mission and their honour and their pride is the all important thing; and the Gunslinger certainly fits into that mould.

But somehow King gets away with it. I think because he isn't actually romanticising what's happening. We hear about the qualities the Gunslinger lacks as much as those he possesses. The man in black is there to mock him, and from a certain point there is a companion, Jake, to be shocked by him and make him doubt himself.

King does a good job of world building, with the differences from our own world kept subtle at first, and monsters referred to in passing instead of lumbering across the page absurdly. That said readers who really can't bear fantasy worlds will probably struggle.

Did it want to make me read the other 7 books? (I think it's 7) To be honest no, but considering this isn't something I would normally have tried, that's not a reflection on the book itself. 

Life, the Universe and Everything - Douglas Adams

This is the third of the Hitchhikers Guide Trilogy of five and reading it I remembered that it was never really my favourite. I think I felt cheated because Trillian solves a puzzle on the basis that anything else would be a ludicrously improbable coincidence - and yet their whole lives up to this point have been one ludicrous coincidence after another. They own a ship powered by the Infinite Improbability Drive for goodness' sake, the ultimate plot device to explain away improbable coincidences.

Trillian annoys me quite as lot a character actually. At the beginning where she's trying to cheer Zaphod up by going to delightful planets and he's not interested - well why not go herself and leave him to it? Then when we see her next she is being chatted up by a thunder god but she just lets Arthur drag her off again. Then she addresses the elders of Krikkit. She seems to have a stunning lack of agency in her own life but be able to advocate just fine on behalf of the universe.

That almost certainly is something to do with it being written in 1982 - her storyline is after all that she's skipped the planet with Zaphod as a kind of adjunct, then seems to fall into a caretaker role, and although she starts to break out later I never feel she really coheres into one person. In fact in the last book she literally is two people, one of which went with Zaphod and one of which didn't, and both are wistfully wondering about that other person they might have been. Is it just me or is there something a bit Anita Brookner about this?

The next year up is 1983. Hopefully I'll manage a few more this time. I already know I want to read The Woman in Black. 

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Reading the 80s - 1981

Ruth Rendell - Put on by Cunning

The first thing I want to say about this book is that although it was originally published in 1981 the version Kensington Libraries have is a 2010 copy by Arrow books, and up to page 117 (when I stopped counting) there were 11 typing or scanning errors. Some relatively minor (‘I’ for ‘in’ ‘on’ for ‘one’) and some larger ('gugs' for 'rugs'), which pulled me out of the narrative as I stopped to work out what the word was meant to be – and that was a shame because it damaged the readability of what is a very competent story. So avoid this edition if possible. It will drive you mad. 

I don’t think I’ve read any of Rendell's Wexford books before, but although we’re clearly well into the series here and the Chief Inspector has a grown up soap star daughter about to get married and an inspector recently married and so on I never felt lost – the characters are sketched in neatly, Wexford thinks about them just enough to be believable – noticing the slight differences from before (Burden is happier, for example, and slightly smarter as a result) and giving us a little info without it becoming contrived. (I’m thinking of another author I read recently as I write this, where the sister of the main character was thinking extensively and intently about him; his marital prospects, his emotional state, his history, in a way that no-one would really do unless said brother had recently topped himself and you were trying to work out what you’d missed. Clunk went the exposition.)

Anyway Cunning starts with the banns being read in church – 80 something year old flautist (sadly arthritic and no longer able to play) is marrying 20 something year old, for companionship rather than anything else. He also intends to change his will, partly because he is remarrying, but also to disinherit the daughter who he hadn’t seen for about 15 years until she read about the engagement in the paper.

If she is his daughter. What begins as the assumed death by misadventure of the flautist at the edge of an icy pond begins to look increasingly like murder as it seems the daughter might, just might, be an imposter. The rest of the book is Wexford increasingly convinced of this, even though the solicitors are moving in the other direction, equally convinced that she is who she says she is and releasing her father's money to her under the terms of the will he never had a chance to change. 

Finally, still sure he's on to something, Wexford books a holiday in America to find out more about where she was for those 15  years. But he's not going to be in time to prevent another death.. 

Bliss - Peter Carey 

I did briefly mention this on the Guardian TLS when I started it (as always please excuse the cut and paste):

'Cheerily oblivious 'Top Bloke' Harry Joy goes in for surgery convinced he's going to die, and comes out convinced he's in Hell, when all that's really happened is that he's started seeing the world and his family as they really are, not as he thought (or assumed) back when he was being cheery and oblivious.'

At that point I was clear in my own mind that Harry wasn't in Hell. By the end, although there was nothing in the book not within the bounds of possibility, I wasn't so sure.

In fact I felt ambivalent about this book and it's characters on quite a few levels. I wondered, for example, about Harry's relationship with his kids. It felt like he loved them, but didn't feel he had to look out for them or offer guidance or be responsible for them or stay and look after them in their mother's absence.

Instead he tells them stories, and that adds another layer, another pattern, to the book. Because Bliss is not only a narrative and a comedy, but also a book about story-telling itself. About it's power to let the storyteller get away with things and put a good spin on things. Harry is also a seller of advertising, and his sales pitch is another form of fiction. From which we see that Harry is misusing his ability, just as all the stories he tells to his family are really his father's stories, and he's using them wrong because he doesn't understand the meaning of them himself.

And Carey does the same thing - perhaps intentionally. There's some lovely writing, and some deliberately no-punches-pulled writing. It's a fantastically ambitious narrative which dazzles and makes you identify with Harry, who actually is a very self indulgent man, and puts you in the head of some really quite horrible people but gives you their story too, the story of why they're like that, and makes you empathise.

And then when you step back and think a little later, when you've put the book down, and especially when you come to review it, you start to wonder why. Have you just been dazzled by Carey's way with words. Are you imagining it or is Harry really just the same very self indulgent, self delusive (albeit in a different and more useful way) and luckier than he deserves man he was at the start? And is that effect deliberate too?

Working with Structuralism - David Lodge.

I think it's fair to say that the first couple of essays in this book were a bit sticky. There were definitely paragraphs of the sort of stuff that makes the lay person despair of ever understanding what literary critics are going on about.

But Lodge, thankfully, addresses this early on, asking:

'Is it possible, or useful, to bring the whole battery of modern formalism and structuralism to bear upon a single text, and what is gained by so doing? Does it enrich our reading by uncovering depths and nuances of reading we might not otherwise have brought to consciousness, help up to solve problems of interpretation and to correct misreadings? Or does it merely encourage a pointless and self-indulgent academicism, in  which the same information is shuffled from one set of categories to another, from one jargon to another, without any real advance in appreciation or understanding?'

Whether or not you agree with his reasons for believing the first answer to be true, or care for the 'jargon' he uses to explain them, I'm just reassured to see that someone, anyone has asked and answered the question. It's a question I think everyone who has studied English above a certain level must have asked themselves, and it's nice to see it acknowledged in print.

In fact this book isn't all - in fact isn't mostly - literary criticism of that sort. There are reviews, a section on ambiguous endings, a discussion of modernism and postmodernism (the last of which appears to have been a new thing in 81). Lodge has a real skill for not assuming his audience knows things but not making heavy weather of telling you. He writes with humour, although not the slightly slapstick comedy found in his fiction, and he is generally, with the exception of the first two essays, clear as crystal and not sticky at all.

So - what did these books have to teach me about 1981? Actually not a lot. They were datable - the restaurant Wexford goes to is run by a Asian refugee from the Ugandan expulsion, Lodge tells us that postmodernism is new, there is a little paranoia about communists in Bliss, but they are only datable, not dated. There's no particular thread or theme that struck me.

Next stop 1982.