Monday, 13 February 2012

the plot

"... discussing post-war US literature
with a girl whose upper arm read 'Fiction'
like it might have been type-written.
When I asked her its significance
she said she sometimes took reminding
what she wanted to be doing
whether reading it or writing." 
It seems that this blog has devolved in recent times into a series of brief summaries of the books I've been reading. Now, this is far from the worst of the various one-note themes to which it has clung - "I'm homesick and don't speak the language" and "This is what I did on the weekend" spring to mind - but its not as wide a subject matter as I would like to imagine myself capable of writing. Nor does it really paint a representative picture of what I spend my time on, though its resurrection as one of my leisure activities is something I enjoy.

One of the things I like about fiction, or at least about the books I have been reading, is the presence of a dominant storyline. There isn't always one central character, and there isn't always one location in which the story takes place, but typically there is one thread of activity, or overriding theme, which serves as a spine to give the story structure and direction.

This is not something that can be said of life. Or, at least, not of my life at present.

My work life, in particular, seems at present to be, and for the past year to have been, an exercise in juggling a dozen or more little endeavours at once. Preparing for lectures, dealing with assignments and exams, keeping up with administrative stuff (I handle Masters admissions and credit assessment for transferring students), helping PhD students, undergraduate project students, Masters project students, reviewing conference and journal papers, writing papers, and trying to develop and sustain the handful of international collaborations I have. It often seems like I spend my time just pecking away at each of these enough to keep them from burying me, and I'm left with little time to actually focus on and make inroads on significant problems.

The same is true to a lesser extent of my life outside work. I give snatches of time to sport, or to reading, or to TV or games, or these life measures that other people seem to find so important, like buying a house or getting a car (I find it a little baffling that others consider either of these an achievement). I spend time with friends, but not nearly as much as I should. I visit my family, but not as often as I should. But in neither my work nor my personal life do I feel like I have a dominant storyline, a central quest, a single light on the hill to which my time is contributing.

Now, I should make it clear, I'm not having some kind of existential crisis, bemoaning a lack of meaning in my life. I'm not suggesting that others have a strong sense of their role in life, of some focal point (vanishing point?) towards which their endeavours are leading. Nor am I saying that I'm doing too many things, really. I do feel like there is value in these things I'm doing. If I didn't, I wouldn't be doing them (or in some cases, I'd be able to stop deluding myself that I will get around to them). Its just an interesting contrast between the stories that I read, and the story that I'm writing with my days and hours.

Monday, 6 February 2012

negligence in reading

It has been months since I blogged about my reading. However, this indicates a negligence of blogging, rather than a negligence of reading. In fact, I've gotten through a pretty decent pile of books since I last wrote, about A Moveable Feast. As I've done in the past following such periods of silence, I'll fall back to a list of brief summaries rather than trying to cover the backlog a post at a time. So, in chronological order ...

  • Rabbit, Run (John Updike): Updike tells a nice portrait of the American mid-life crisis, or perhaps really early-life crisis, of a middle-American man struggling with the prospect of an ordinary life with an alcoholic wife and a second baby on the way. He picks up and leaves, but struggles with his sense of duty to his past life, and ends up going home, which has its own problems. I felt like this book had a lot in common with Continental Drift, but with a sharper focus on the protagonist rather than the time, although it certainly does have commentary on the evolving nature of community and the relationship with the church. It won't go on my list of really great books, but its certainly enough to make me go back for the others in the 4-book series at some point in the future.
  • His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman): This was an anthology of the 3 books in the trilogy (Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass), which I bought on a whim, having seen it a list of significant books and not having read it during my teenage years, during which this genre was my bread-and-butter (so many years wasted reading David Eddings and Robert Jordan). I'd seen the movie, which was actually pretty good, but unsurprisingly, the books are better. Their extra length lends the opportunity for more depth and breadth of characters, which both expand as the series progresses (although the first book was probably still my favourite). Some of the comments I'd read had lead me to fairly strong atheist/anti-religious themes, but they weren't there, or at least were subtle and strongly focussed on the narrative and not on an external agenda, and I think in this case the books are stronger for it.
  • Down Under (Bill Bryson): My mother had given me this book while I was in France, as a gift for someone, but for one reason or another I never gave it. To be honest, I was slightly apprehensive about reading it, and only picked it up because I wanted something light to pass the time on a bus trip. Despite that, I have to confess I quite liked it. I like to think I know a fair bit about Australia already, but I still found lots of things in the book I didn't know about, and I enjoyed it for that. Having said that, it really was the Australian content I liked, and I can't see myself going out of my way to chase more Bryson stuff. There were parts of this book where he made generalisations that really annoyed me, and generally I had a sense that his way of looking at the world would become increasingly annoying. Still, no real regrets.
  • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn): It has long been on my list to "read some of the Russians". There are some great Russian names in literature: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Nabokov, and many more, and to date I think my only foray into their work had been an aborted attempt at Crime and Punishment (against which I still hold a grudge). I found this novella on my parents' shelves, and like so many of the "big names" in 20th century literature (Steinbeck and Hemingway come to mind), I found it really very easy to read. The story does what it says on the box; Denisovich is a prisoner in a Russian gulag, and the book tells the story of his day from waking up in the cold, through a day spent laying bricks on a power station, to his return to camp. Its very matter-of-fact, and doesn't wallow in his situation, which I suppose is instructive in itself, but it does paint a good picture of Denisovich and various other prisoners, how they came to be in the prison and how they pass their time and interact.
  • Eucalyptus (Murray Bail): I had read another Murray Bail book, Holden's Performance, last year, and enjoyed it a lot, but it is Eucalyptus for which he is probably best known, so it had been on my list. To be honest, I probably didn't enjoy it quite as much as the previous one, but it certainly is an interesting read. Bail is a very elegiac writer - his stories kind of float, and at times tread the line between this world and another, more whimsical world, and this is more true in Eucalyptus, which is at times part novel and part fairy tale. I actually bought this book as a present for my mother; like the father in the story, my mother's block is littered with eucalypts, and part of the book's structure is a series of descriptions of different eucalypt varieties. For me, though, without my mother's knowledge of native Australian flora, this was no barrier; as much as these descriptions guide the structure, they in no way dominate the text or affect the story, of a father who promises the hand of his beautiful, cloistered daughter to whoever can name all of the eucalypt varieties on his property. I didn't find the ending 100% satisfying, but it was certainly an interesting read.
  • A Room With A View (E.M. Forster): Forster is another of those many names that I've seen on great books/authors lists - typically for this book, or Howard's End, or A Passage To India, but had never read. I had seen him written off in one or two interviews with other authors - possibly Nabokov in his Paris Review interview, although the overwhelming impression from that review is not of Nabokov's opinions, but of his opinionatedness - but I went into this book with a fairly open mind. I wasn't excited by its first half, of Lucy and the other expats and their time in Italy (most Florence). The picture of an expat community living alongside, but apart from, the local Italians, rang false with my expatriate experience. I don't doubt its authenticity, but it represents for me the "wrong" way to go about living in another country. As the story moves back to England, Forster develops more his themes looking at class and propriety, and the English reserve, but although I'm sure at the time these were valid and pointed criticisms, for me it all seems a bit tame and tentative. By the end, as much as Lucy seemed to attain her liberation from these things, I couldn't help but feel like she hadn't really moved that far. I also felt like Cold Comfort Farm, admittedly a very different kind of book, made some of the points better.
  • In The Winter Dark (Tim Winton): I've read a few books by Tim Winton, and not yet been disappointed. Even those without the reputation of a Cloudstreet, I've found pretty satisfying, even just as an easy read, so I was pretty comfortable picking this one out from the library. The story is of 4 people living besides one another in the Australian country - not farmers per se, but by no means in a town - and the way they react to the arrival of a beast, never revealed, preying on livestock. Its somewhat darker in tone than Winton's normal fair, but after a slow start - the stuff about seeing other people's dreams never really worked for me - it picks up pace, and reaches a nice climax, before finding an unexpected but not incongruous conclusion.
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (John Le Carré): The only other John Le Carré book I have read was The Constant Gardener, back in 2005. In that case I went on to see the movie, which was an interesting experience - an important one, even, in terms of the way I think about movie adaptations. This time was not dissimilar. Although I had heard of this book - along with The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, it is perhaps Le Carré's best-known - and despite an enthusiasm for Le Carré, it was the book's recent adaptation into a feature film which prompted me to pick it up. The story follows the recently, but not voluntarily, retired intelligence officer George Smiley, as he investigates a report of a double-agent inside the British secret service, which leads generally to a retrospective investigation that lead to his retirement. Le Carré does such a nice job of weaving details, and mixing in enough jargon to really immerse the reader in the spy milieu, and the result is a very compelling story, and entirely befitting its reputation.
  • Camouflage (Murray Bail): Perhaps it wasn't the size of this book that made me pick it up, but it didn't hurt. At just 85 small-format pages, this is a curious edition of 2 short stories, the first about  a piano-tuner who is drafted to work on camouflaging a WWII air base in the red centre of Australia, and the second about a boy's memory of the development of a relationship between his sister and a neighbour. The latter story, in particular, reinforced my impression of Bail as a fantasy writer, as it manages a lovely little transition from a real-world scene into what feels a dream sequence.
Wow, so there's that. A few years ago I set myself a resolution of reading more, and since then my annual reading has risen from 8 to 12 to last year's 21. The number is not the end-game, obviously, but I feel its been successful because I've really broadened my reading horizons, and I've enjoyed discovering new writers and new styles. Using a number has probably inadvertently pushed me towards shorter forms like novellas, but I'm entirely comfortable with that - it's a format I like, and if it leads me to a broader range of storytellers and stories, then that's a good thing. This year I've set myself a number of 25 over on goodreads, which I don't think will be a barrier numerically (I read 5 in January). Hopefully it will bring me the joy that last year's endeavours did.