Wednesday, February 12, 2020

January Reads

Look at Me by Anita Brookner
Heat Wave by Penelope Lively
The Past by Tessa Hadley
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C. Pam Zhang
Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

Some personal news. My mother passed away on January 27, 2020 at 5 in the morning, after a brief but awful fight with cancer. I haven't felt much like writing for a few months as I've felt more bone tired than I thought possible. From visiting in the hospital to processing heavy medical information, I just haven't really found the energy to do *gestures at blog* this. I have been working on a post about my month with Joyce Carol Oates (I read 7 in a row) for two months but I just can't muster any enthusiasm. Not for JCO herself, obviously; she persists in being excellent. I'll eventually finish that post but not today.

I took time off work because my father also has cancer and has been fighting it for over a year now. We did not expect, a year ago, to be at my mother's deathbed. Thanks to this time off work and doing a lot of waiting, I found some energy for reading. It was either that or risking my sanity. I read 7 novels during January, but two of them were JCO books and so will be listed under the heading of "Joyce Carol Oates-ember" as the post will eventually be named. (For February, I'm already at 6 and it's only the 12th as I write this post).

Brookner's Look at Me was terrific, delivering on the promise of Hotel du Lac and going even further. The novel doesn't lend itself to easy interpretation or pat answers and for that I applaud it. Brookner has gone swiftly from blind spot to new (to me) favourite writer. I've already picked up a handful of her other novels and I look forward to swimming farther in these disturbing oceans.

Heat Wave was phenomenal. Lively opens up this world and invites the readers in, comforting them with accessible symbols and well defined characters, but for all the welcome she provides, the texture and feeling of this world is scouring and febrile. Attention is closely paid to the ways people just don't get along.

Hadley's The Past was great up until the final fifth, at which point there are some melodramatic notes more akin to soap operas and indie films than the rich careful novel of the previous 4/5s. Disappointing but not completely rubbish.

The Zhang novel is highly anticipated and I'm grateful to have read an advanced reading copy. I wanted to like this so much but I found it overwritten and lacking in forward momentum. The most interesting character is held at arm's length for much of the novel until a revealing flashback just before the final fifth (an extremely common structural choice nowadays, much to my chagrin). The flashback was ten times more interesting than the rest of the novel and obviously I wanted more of that than what the novel thinks is a draw.

Under the Net felt like a preliminary draft of The Sea, the Sea, and I'm getting the sense from critics that many of Murdoch's novels are shaped like her Booker Prize-winning effort. There are madcap antics, people running to and fro, misunderstandings, and philosophical asides. The first 50 or so pages of Under the Net were funny but my attention wandered as the novel went on. Not quite as magisterial and commanding as The Sea, the Sea. I will definitely read more of her stuff, as I collected all of the recent Vintage paperbacks (there are 6 of them) reissued for Murdoch's centenary.

I didn't mean to read 18 women authors in a row (other than my concerted effort to read JCO) and I thought for a moment of continuing that trend and making an entire year of it, but there are too many trilogies I need to finish (Wolfe, KSR, Barker) to wait yet another year. Still, I'm confident the year-end ratio will weigh heavily in favour of women.

1 comment:

Jonathan M said...

Matthew, I am terribly sorry for your loss. I hope you are bearing up okay and that the days are getting easier one by one. I am thinking of you.