Work at present is all about grant writing (tis the season) and paper writing, so my intention this weekend was to spend a little time catching up on some of that, specifically on a paper due this coming Friday. However, as it turns out - and this is hardly surprising given my form - I didn't do any writing, but instead spent most of the weekend reading. Of course, a weekend spent reading can never, ever, be considered to have been completely wasted.
Before I get to this weekend, though, I owe the usual clearinghouse of books I've read but haven't yet mentioned here (note to self: everything since Cry, The Beloved Country). Actually, this corresponds pretty closely to my holiday reading.
My holiday reading began with Tess of the D'Urbervilles. In the end, this book cut through my holiday, as I frequently put it aside, often angrily, and went away to read something else. 2 of those something elses where finished by the time I finally put Tess to bed.
As I've done at times in the past, my holiday reading was fuelled early by a trip to my library, and as usual, the ideas I walked in with bore no resemblance to the books I walked out with. The first of these was The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes. I read one of Barnes' books, A History of the World in 10 1/2 chapters, a few years ago, and although I wasn't overly excited by its at-times-too-clever religious analyses, it has grown on me with time. Its odd sometimes the books that you remember. Unfortunately, I can't see Sense of An Ending being one of them. Its a fairly short book told by an unreliable narrator looking back at his past relationships and friendships, and who becomes less likeable as the book goes on. Oddly enough, one of the things I liked about 10 1/2 chapters was the feeling that I didn't quite understand what was going on, but what I didn't like about Ending was the feeling that I did.
After my first library book, and as my second escape from morbid 19th century rural English moralism, I picked up something close to hand. One of my family discoveries a few years ago was that, against all the odds, we had a world champion as a distant relative. To be fair, pretty distant, though. As it turns out, I have a third cousin (or something equally vague) named Chrissie Wellington, the now-retired four-time world champion in the ironman. Although none of my close family have met her, we picked up a copy of her autobiography last year, and have all been working our way through it. Its actually a pretty good read - certainly interesting in terms of what she has done in her life, but not just in simplistic "I won this, I won this" boasting or "you can be your dreams" motivational ways. The characters - principally Chrissy herself and her coach Brett Sutton - are conflicted characters with flaws and virtues in different measure. In some ways it feels premature as an autobiography - she is only a few months older than me, and one would hope that she has a lot left to achieve in her life (the autobiography was actually written before she retired, although one wonders if it was on her mind). Hopefully our distant connection, principally through her uncle & aunt, will allow us to remain up to date with what happens beyond the last page of the book.
Having whisked through a couple of sidetracks, I finally gritted my teeth and finished off Tess. Reading shouldn't be as hard as this, but this isn't the first time I've found it hard reading from this era. At times I've whinged to people about the female "protagonists" being so passive and the social norms so backwards (as regards women, mainly). I know its not that simple, and I've never been satisfied with the words I use to complain about it, but somehow I don't enjoy reading it, even though I have enjoyed other social commentary literature from back then (Dickens, mainly). Anyway, Tess was morbid, joyless and frustrating to me, and what enjoyment I gained from the descriptions of the landscape did little to counterbalance her.
As a palate cleanser, the morning I finished Tess, I skipped through The Little Prince. Nice book, I suppose, in an early-19th-century-fantastical-childrens-book-with-transparent-social-motivational-analogies kind of way. Mostly I liked the pictures.
That brings me to this weekend (anyone new to this blog and expecting my clearinghouse to be brief would do well to free themselves of these delusions - my sporadic longwindedness is part of this blog's charm, I maintain). After Tess, I decided to go back to my wheelhouse. One of my five favourite books (back when I made the mistake of compiling such a list) is Dan Simmons' Hyperion, which was a marvellous series mixing scifi, fantasy, and literary references. His follow-up series, Ilium/Olympos, wasn't quite in the same class, but was also fascinating in the way it mixed the fantastical and the classical. So, when my browse through the library took me past Simmons' Drood, I picked it up. After a protracted reading over what has been an eventful January, I finally finished it on Saturday morning.
I had always had in my mind an impression of Simmons as two authors, one who wrote scifi/fantasy (neither of those terms fits, in fact), and another who wrote horror. I suspect now that this clear distinction between his outputs only really works until you've read sufficient of his work to realise that the the reality is much more blurred. Drood is essentially historical fiction, with supernatural/psychological elements mixed in. The story is told from the perspective of Wilkie Collins, as an unreliable narrator who is addicted to laudanum and later other opiates, and deals with the last 5 years of Charles Dickens' life following the Staplehurst rail crash. The book is a little uneven, with compelling sections, such as the pair's descent into the Undertown tunnels, but also with a tendency to drag at times. The unreliable narrator element is perhaps the best part of the book - one can never be sure what role Collins' drug use is having on the story that we are told, either in terms of the characterisations or of the events themselves.
The final book in this lengthy spiel was the one I most enjoyed. Discovering Hemingway a couple of years ago, via a chance purchase on a street near Basel (best 2CHF I've ever spent), has been one of my great pleasures of recent years, so A Farewell To Arms was another library encounter which met with no hesitation. The story is of an American working as an ambulance driver in northern Italy during the first world war. He falls in love with a Scottish nurse, then deserts the army during a retreat in which the military structures start to break down, and flees with the nurse to Switzerland. To be honest, the characters are thinly drawn, especially Catherine, who is a ghost of a woman with no discernable traits beyond lovely hair and being submissive. Henry, the protagonist, would be in AA if he existed in today's world - the quantities of vermouth, whiskey, cognac and white wine he gets through are extraordinary. However, there is something about the story that just worked for me. I don't know if its Hemingway's simple writing style, or his beautiful pacing, but I picked the book up on Saturday afternoon, and put it down Sunday evening, and really felt good about it.
My next book will be All That I Am, by Anna Funder, which won the Miles Franklin last year. The lovely Nicole is hosting a book club next week, and for all the talking I've done about books over the years, I've never done so in a more organised setting where people come actually expecting to talk about the book I've just finished reading. So I'm looking forward to it tremendously.
Having loosened my authorial gland through the above braindump, I shall now return to avoiding the writing I really should be doing.