Wednesday, 20 May 2015

What I read on holiday

Ilha Deserta, Portugal
Holiday reading, May 2015

I always read a lot on holiday. Strange as it may sound (since, after all, I read all the time anyway), copious reading is one of the things I look forward to most about going away. I used to put a pile of books in my suitcase; now I have a Kindle, I usually set off with a reading list in mind. This time, my aim was to read my way through a collection of books I'd come to think of as 'the 2014 backlog'. Books that had, at one point or another, been at the very top of my to-read list, but had been pushed down or off it altogether by other priorities. Alongside those were a couple of new books I thought would make perfect holiday reads. Here's how it went...

Outline (2014) by Rachel Cusk
Nothing much really happens in Outline. A writer, Faye, goes to Athens to teach an English-language writing workshop. She befriends the man sitting next to her on the plane, who tells her of his failed marriages. The stories Faye hears - from this man, from her co-teacher, from her students and friends - make up the narrative, and in between we learn a little of her own life. So it's not terribly eventful, and there certainly isn't a plot, but the characters' conversations are fascinating, having that pleasant quality of feeling real in the way they jump from subject to subject and head off in irrational directions, yet being better than reality - more articulate, with fewer interruptions, more coherent and measured and simply more interesting. I somehow always knew I'd like this book, and I liked it in exactly the way I expected to.
Rating: 8/10. Buy the ebook

Idiopathy (2013) by Sam Byers
Sam Byers' 'debut novel of love, narcissism, and ailing cattle' is populated by characters most readers seem to have hated, but whom I took to immediately - especially the supremely acerbic antiheroine Katherine. She's one of three protagonists, the others being indecisive Daniel and fresh-out-of-rehab Nathan. The characterisation of these central figures is the book's great strength - they're horribly real, and their inner dialogues and neuroses about relationships, work and life in general are totally believable. Byers is also excellent at nailing communication: banal office conversations, the awful mechanics of arguments and insults between lovers. The secondary characters can be a bit daft, a little too oversaturated in what seem to be intended as their satirical traits - as can the plot, to the extent that it exists - but for the most part this is a painfully funny read (emphasis on painful). Should be more widely read, and I'm glad I finally got round to it after two years (!) of having an 'advance' copy.
Rating: 8/10. Full review / Buy the ebook

The Ghost Network (5 May 2015) by Catie Disabato
Enormous fun. This innovative, super-meta novel is presented as an existing book - part academic text, part true crime - written by an English professor, and found and edited by a fictionalised version of the actual author. The subject: the disappearance of Lady Gaga-esque pop star Molly Metropolis, closely followed by Caitlin Taer, a music journalist and avid fan who was trying to find out what happened to her. Replete with footnotes, the book proceeds to diverge into various ideas, conspiracies, and subplots involving the Situationist International movement, psychogeography, and... public transport. These diversions and the obvious riffs on real celebrities' images are themselves a demonstration of the oft-referenced situationist concept of détournement, while the titular ghost network is, unexpectedly, a map of every possible permutation of 'the L', Chicago's elevated railway - real, proposed, and imagined. Comparable to Marisha Pessl's Night Film and the fiction of Scarlett Thomas, it ends up as a conspiracy thriller-cum-dissection of modern fan culture, and it's completely absorbing, addictive, funny and wonderfully energetic. The best new book I have read this year.
Rating: 9/10. Full review / Buy the ebook

The Woman Upstairs (2013) by Claire Messud
One of those rare books I didn't love as a whole and yet find myself wanting to quote to death, remembering specific passages far more clearly than I remember what the book was actually about. This story is a chronicle of quiet inner rage and repressed anger, all revolving around narrator Nora's increasingly desperate obsession with a glamorous, successful, intellectual family, the Shahids. The plot, which ends predictably, isn't remarkable - the appeal of The Woman Upstairs lies in the way Claire Messud constructs the fascinating character of Nora. There were parts of the book in which I related deeply and fundamentally to Nora, while at other points, she repulsed me. Inspiring this sort of reaction makes the story powerful and memorable: I may have had mixed feelings about Nora, but I'll never forget her, and this is the sort of book I'll reread in a few years' time (I'm curious to see if, and how, my reaction will differ when I'm older).
Rating: 8/10. Full review / Buy the ebook

A Certain Smile (1956) by Françoise Sagan
As short and sharp as her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan's second (published a year later) is the story of a young woman's affair with an older man, and her subsequent, inevitable, heartbreak. Bored and indifferent towards her boyfriend, Bertrand, Dominique feels a shift in her affections when she meets his married uncle, Luc. Once again Sagan provides remarkable and painful insights into the emotional landscapes of youth - the progression of Dominique's feelings for Luc is as agonising to watch as it is inescapable. I wasn't wowed by this like I was by Bonjour Tristesse, perhaps because the books are very similar in terms of tone, mood, and the relationships between characters. I can see why the two have frequently been published together, and I'd have perhaps preferred to read them one after the other. Still, this was another perfect little gem of a story ideal for a sunny morning.
Rating: 8/10. Buy the book

Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay (10 September 2015) by William Boyd
From the moment I first heard about it, I'd wanted to describe William Boyd's new novel as 'the female-focused version of Any Human Heart'; the first-person life story of a female photographer named Amory Clay, its tagline is 'the story of a woman - the story of a century'. It does indeed span most of the 20th century, taking Amory from London society to Berlin in the 1920s, to New York in the 1930s and France during the Second World War, and from a cottage in the Scottish Highlands to Vietnam. It's a fascinating series of adventures, but not as full or satisfying as Any Human Heart. Amory failed to come to life for me - I felt her character was painted too broadly and I couldn't picture her as a real person. This was certainly a nice holiday read, but lacking in the humour, emotion and insight I'd been hoping for.
Rating: 6/10. Full review / Pre-order the book

Outline, Idiopathy and The Woman Upstairs were all on the 2014 Backlog list. I started and rejected several more from that list - Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce, Unteachable by Leah Raeder, Abroad by Katie Crouch - and I've written a little more about the reasons why on Tumblr. Next time - partly because of a few disappointing new books this year - I'm thinking of banning myself from reading 'modern' (maybe 2000 or later) fiction, unless it's translated from another language. Or perhaps I should do that as a month-long project?

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