Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Books – What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt

Published in 2003, Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved lies somewhere between a love story and a thriller. It follows the life of art historian Leo Hertzberg and his relationship with artist Bill Weschler and his wife Violet. What begins as the story of Leo and Bill builds into the story of both of their families and the connections between them, eventually settling on the story of Bill’s son Mark. It is a novel about family, art, love and grief – and about something else, something more sinister, something that I can’t quite put my finger on.

I found novel both engaging and interesting. It is undoubted a gripping read, especially after Part One, and while reading I was increasingly drawn in and fascinated by these two families living in such close proximity, as well as by Bill’s art. Yet what is odd about What I Loved is that it doesn’t seem to have any sort of consistent plot. Rather than one story woven through the novel, it is made instead up of multiple shorter plots stitched together. They are stitched together well, certainly, but I still felt like I was reading a completely different novel in Part Three to the novel I had started in Part One. The novel seemed to have changed tone, focus, meaning, and even genre by the end. Now, I do rather like books that blend and merge genres, but I find it more effective when they do so from the start, rather than merely shifting half way through.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Books – The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

After its release two years ago, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry became a bestseller almost immediately, and was longlisted for the Man Booker prize. It’s one of those books I’ve been meaning to read since it came out, not only because of its brilliant title, but because it was thoroughly recommended to me by so many people. So I finally got around to reading it (or perhaps I should say listening, as I’ve got the audiobook), and I was not disappointed.

The premise of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is both simple and effective. Reeling from the news that an old friend of his is dying of cancer, Harold Fry, a pensioner from Devon, sets out to post a letter to her. And then he just keeps on walking. In fact, he decides to walk all the way from where he is now to Queenie Hennessy’s hospice. He sets out to walk from Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed, in the hope that somehow the very act of walking with save her life.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Books – The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman, by Denis Thériault

I’ve mentioned before how I enjoy going into a bookshop and choosing a book blind, knowing nothing about it. I suppose when I do this what I’m basically doing is judging books by their cover, but I’ve personally always felt that, however effective and true the idiom is for metaphorical situations, when it actually comes down to books themselves, you can tell a lot about a novel by its cover and its title. That’s not to say that I might be missing plenty novels by judging books by their covers. For example, take Where Rainbows End, which I read on kindle having been recommended the book by a friend. I only saw the paperback cover when I Wikipediaed it while writing my review of it in order to check the spelling of the author’s name. My immediate thought was that, if I’d seen the cover before reading it, I’d have been put off the book at once. As it was I really enjoyed it. Nonetheless, I imagine publishers have a fair idea of what they’re doing when they market and design books in a particular way. So I picked up The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman because I liked the minimalist cover design and because the title is beautifully poetic.

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman was written by French Canadian Denis Thériault in 2005 and translated by Liedewy Hawke in 2008. The novel centres on Bilodo, a youngish postman who has become obsessed with intercepting the letters he sends. He devours the letters of Ségolène, who communicates with her friend Gaston Grandpré in only Haikus. Bilodo finds him bizarrely falling in love with Ségolène, who he has never met and never spoken to, and lives solely for the days he can read the letters she sends for someone else. And then something happens to disturb Bilodo’s routine.

It’s been several days since I finished The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman and I still haven’t decided whether or not I liked it. There’s no doubt that it’s an interesting idea, that Bilodo is a clever character, and that it’s well written – well, mostly; I have my doubts about the Haikus, but more on that anon. Nonetheless, there is something unsettling about the novel – something intentionally unsettling, I have no doubt, but I’m still not entirely sure whether I thought it worked.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Books - The Book of Illusions, by Paul Auster

Finally reading The Book of Illusions was, for me, a strange experience. I kept getting an odd sense of déjà vu. After all, although I only read this novel last week I have, in a way, been familiar with it for years.

Published in 2002, Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions tells two stories, or perhaps more. In the foreground, it’s the story of David, an academic trying hard to cope after the death of his family in a plane crash. Yet at the same time it tells the story of the silent film actor Hector Mann, whose work David discovers and loves in the depths of his depression. Hector Mann vanished back in the 1920s, and we follow David as he learns the truth about Hector’s life and disappearance. Beyond that, we also get the stories of several of Hector Mann’s films. It’s a fascinating, complex and clever book, so jammed packed full of stories that I kept on thinking what a great film it would make. Although perhaps any novel about a some lost films and a film maker ought to be in some way cinematic.

The novel was half familiar to me from the beginning because, four years ago, my all-time favourite singer Duke Special released an album entitled The Silent World of Hector Mann. This album, inspired by Auster’s novel, is a musical interpretation of the twelve silent films Hector Mann is supposed to have produced.  Each track is written by a different musician friend of the singer, and all are performed by Duke Special himself. Each track takes the name, theme and plot from a different one of Hector Mann’s films. It’s a beautiful album, including incredible songs such as ‘Mister Nobody’ and ‘Scandal’, and a fascinating tribute to The Book of Illusions. So I sat there reading the novel with a bizarre sense of déjà vu, because although I didn’t know the book, I knew from Duke Special’s album all the films the book describes. As Duke Special isn’t that well known an artist, and as his album came out about eight years after the novel itself, this obviously isn’t the typical reading experience. Nonetheless, I do think they work wonderfully side by side.