July-August 2014 reading

The Picture of Dorian Gray The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Brilliant, simple, original ideas are hard to come by. Oscar Wilde had one of them, and the result is The Picture of Dorian Gray, a tragic exploration of a consequence-free life. Conspicuously absent are details about what Dorian actually DOES when he is supposedly indulging in wild excess and vice – I’m guessing these were too riskily risqué for a Victorian readership. As such, it is hard for us to tell exactly whose side we should be on as a modern audience, though Lord Henry’s cruel witticisms which sow the seeds of amorality in young Dorian’s mind can seem less seductive now than they probably did then. Also off-putting are the book’s treatment of class, and certain drawn-out descriptions of faraway things that have little bearing on the story. All in all, though, the book is still interesting for its iconic and genuinely unsettling imagery, its endless paradoxical soundbites and the sort of ending that makes you go “Now, that’s an ending!” (Also, for a bit of context it is well worth reading about Wilde’s life, particularly his trial, to which this book now seems incredibly relevant.)

Cat's Cradle Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

You never quite know what you’re getting into with Vonnegut. Cat’s Cradle plays with a bafflingly diverse array of ingredients which interact in chaotic ways to bring about a most unconventional apocalypse. These ingredients include: the oddball children of the mysterious, deceased co-inventor of the atom bomb, a large quantity of new and useful philosophical terms (courtesy of Bokononism, a self-admittedly made-up religion), several fragments of ice-nine (a new kind of water that teaches any other water it touches to solidify into a stubbornly unusable block) and, last but not least, the tropical island nation of San Lorenzo. It reminds me a little of H G Wells in its mingling of dark visions of the future with musings on humanity which make such futures appear worryingly inevitable. I know this is one of Vonnegut’s best-regarded books, but for me it hasn’t yet clicked together into as satisfying a whole as, to pick an unfairly brilliant example, Slaughterhouse-Five. But there’s so much going on, thematically and philosophically, that I already have the itch to revisit it in the not-too-apocalyptically-distant future.

Telegraph Avenue Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Telegraph Avenue interweaves the stories of two families living in Oakland, California, including two men whose record shop is on the brink of going out of business, two disillusioned midwives, two teenage boys experimenting with their sexuality, and an ageing Blaxploitation star trying to escape his criminal past and revive his movie career. It’s nice to read a book that deals with interracial friendship without either glossing over the cultural differences or, worse, making them seem like a huge deal, something deep and unconquerable simmering under the surface of all human nature. Generally the main characters are more worried that they may be racist than actually racist, which feels fundamentally reassuring in a weird way. This is indicative of the book’s restrained tone – we don’t see much in the way of epic confrontations, nervous breakdowns, melodramatic monologuing and so on. Most of the book could be a soap opera if it weren’t so funnily and interestingly written, so sunny and pleasant and filled with rich, colourful language. If you can forgive a few cartoonish moments and a few more that a cynic would see as excuses for Chabon to show off his writing skills, this is a most enjoyable and worthwhile read.

How I Escaped My Certain Fate How I Escaped My Certain Fate by Stewart Lee

My two favourite stand-up comedians, Stewart Lee and Ross Noble, both make me feel somewhat cheated by other stand-ups. Ross Noble because the vast majority of his material is completely improvised, and Stewart Lee because he devastatingly dismantles a lot of the clichés other comedians use to get cheap laughs. This book continues that work, with accounts of his frustrating journey to get his stand-up career back without sacrificing integrity. There are also annotated transcripts of three of his shows, which really make you appreciate the level of thought that goes into his routines, and the subtle ways he manipulates his audiences. As in his shows, it is not always clear here where the real Stewart Lee ends and his stand-up character begins. He is one of those mildly intimidating people with such strong convictions about what art and culture should be that I find myself wishing I could be so sure about things, pondering whether I should start pretending not to like the things he doesn’t like in order to seem more cultured. I still like musical theatre though.

The Road The Road by Cormac McCarthy

One of the bleaker post-apocalypses I’ve visited. No bands of sassy, leather-clad, punky-haired, gun-toting survivors banding together and forging unlikely alliances here. And that’s not all McCarthy has jettisoned: there is no cautionary narrative about the events leading up to the apocalypse; even speech marks and character names are done away with, which lends the proceedings an odd, lonely, distant flavour. Conversations are stark, brief and clipped, occasionally veering towards the dark absurdity of Beckett’s Endgame. I suppose there is some of the Slaughterhouse-Five sense of there being no plots left to tell in this sort of insane situation – no heroes, no victories to be achieved, very little hope of rebuilding society. But The Road‘s protagonists at least have an iron will to survive, even if it’s not always clear why they would want to. It is the small details of their struggle which are the most powerful, and which truly make us ache for them to stumble upon the brighter world we feel they must surely have earned by now.

The Elements of Eloquence The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth

A fantastic, inspiring and entertaining glossary of rhetorical techniques to make language sing – from alliteration to zeugma (though not in that order). I wish I had read this book years ago, as I now feel I could apply at least a few of the techniques it describes to my own writing – though there are some, as Forsyth notes, that come naturally to people without them even noticing. Particularly impressive is how the author manages to construct a chain of rhetorical examples, one leading naturally to the other all the way through the book – I can only imagine this involved a maddeningly complicated flowchart of some kind. But it pays off, making the book extremely readable, and if you’re me you will set aside all worldly responsibilities to blaze through it. I will definitely go back to The Elements of Eloquence, and may even pick up a paper copy for easier reference. (Also I can’t believe I never noticed the thing about proper adjective order before! What a little curious thing!)

Neverwhere Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

In Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman invents a world under London which bears the same sort of resemblance to the actual city that the London Underground map does – twisted into different shapes, abstracted, making unexpectedly literal sense of some of the odder station names on the tube network. This is a world of rats and labyrinthine sewer tunnels and people in ragged clothes, scraping out a living in their own vaguely supernatural world, unseen by people above. The story rolls along merrily, sweeping likeably vague and vaguely likeable protagonist Richard Mayhew along with it. We rarely return to the same place twice, as Gaiman seems determined to introduce us to as many surreal sights as possible in the time he has. He is never overly concerned with explaining how things came to be or the rules that govern magic in his world, if indeed there are any rules other than “it has to be weird and cool”. I alternate between finding this enthralling and a little hard to swallow, but overall I’d have had to be quite devoted to depriving myself of fun, to avoid falling under Neverwhere‘s spell.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

This connected with me more than the other Neil Gaiman books I’ve read. This may be because there are specific details (not the really dark stuff, thankfully) that matched so precisely with my own experience that they reached through the page (well, Kindle screen, to be less poetic) and put me right there in the shoes of the seven-year-old protagonist. As well as featuring a classic Gaiman world-within-our-world (or is our world within their world?), The Ocean at the End of the Lane is beautifully evocative of childhood. There is a powerful sense of adulthood as mysterious and full of secret knowledge, which is then dwarfed by a similar but much grander sense about the hidden world the main character stumbles into, which just goes to show that growing up isn’t all that children think it is. You’ll notice I’ve said very little about the actual storyline. That’s because this is one of those stories that feels almost destined to become an iconic and canonical work of fantasy, and if you have the chance to go into it without knowing anything, you probably should take it.

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