Monthly Archives: September 2015

Booker Prize #2 (RC #68) – ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler

sbthreadBooker Prize #2 – ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler

As with anything I get really into, I like to read around about it as much as I can. Thus, even when the hobby itself is reading, I like to read about reading almost as much as digesting the books themselves. Usually, that takes the form of reviews, and the first thing I did once I finished ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ was look at what other people thought about it. I was surprised. There couldn’t have been a more polar opposite response to a book than what I saw in front of me. I guess that is what the best literature is want to do – separate people  into groups of people who loathe it and people who love it.

For your information, I would fall squarely in the camp of people who loved it, and I don’t tend to read these types of social/family relationship type novels. It was outside my comfort zone, but there was something…pleasant…about reading the story and following the trials and tribulations of the Whitshanks across four generations. Rather than follow a linear narrative, we hop around between the youth of the grandparents (later on in the novel) and the big family gatherings around an aging couple (where we begin the story). We see the arguments between siblings, between parents and the black sheep of the family and with extended family, whilst we never get a sense that the family don’t at least try to do what they generally consider to be the best for the good of the family.

Most of the complaints about the story seemed to be that the story went nowhere. Without wanting to go into too much detail so as not to spoil the story, there are moments that do shock and surprise, but I’ll admit that there isn’t one big ‘ahah’ moment, one big swerve or one big twist to have you furrowing your brow and mulling over it for days afterwards. Whilst this seems to be a deal breaker for some people who read the book, I couldn’t care less when the writing is as fluent and beautiful as that which Tyler commits to the page. She presents a family in the way that is recognisable to anyone who is the creation of a big family environment; the back-biting, the squabbling, the politics, but most importantly, the love.

The structure of the novel does go a long way to assisting the narrative in my opinion. As we get to see the two grandparents suffering through the perils of old age, with all that entails, we get a snapshot of their own parents and the difficult courtship that they went through. This makes the reader feel that we get a true glimpse of what it took to create the characters that we have begun to fall for, warts and all, making them feel even more valuable for their unlikely existence.

People may complain that the story doesn’t really move along at a cracking pace whilst offering twists and turns galore. I’m okay with that. The book meanders, and I was happy to meander along with it. It felt familiar, yet biting, comfortable, yet confrontational. Everything a good book should be, and more.

Booker Prize #1 (RC #67) – ‘Satin Island’ by Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy-Satin IslandBooker Prize #1 – ‘Satin Island’ by Tom McCarthy

Since the only way I now seem to get joy out of my reading is to somehow challenge myself to exceed any normal understanding of what ‘reading for pleasure’ might mean, I decided when the Booker Prize shortlist was announced that I would try my best to read all six books before the winner was declared. This way, I could completely hitch my wagon to the wrong horse and look like a schmuck when the book I hated the most wins inevitably.

As I’m also fighting a battle to read a set amount of books during the year (a challenge that is increasing in difficulty as the year goes by), I decided to read the smallest books first. Thus, if I gave up, I could at least have made progress in one area of my reading challenges. Huzzah!

This meant the first book was ‘Satin Island’ by Tom McCarthy. With my reading for this challenge being Kindle-based, I know that this book took me around three hours to read – by the end of it, I wondered a little as to why I bothered.

That is not to suggest that the book is bad. McCarthy clearly has some talent when it comes to non-sequitur flights of fancy and stream-of-concious-esque narrative development…it just left me fairly cold. I spoke before about my lack of a desire to necessarily analyse deeper meanings within my reading for fear of completely getting the wrong end of the stick, but in this instance, I just don’t really get what McCarthy is trying to suggest or say.

The story concerns a man called ‘U’, who works for a company who seem to be seeking the ultimate truth about the world, the one big anthropological theory or formula that creates the mechanisms of the world we live in. Unfortunately for him, U has been tasked with this job.  It feels almost as if it placed in near future rather than the present day, as our narrator tangles with ethical, moral and narrative dilemmas about stories as disparate as an oil spill and the death of a parachutist. In the intervening moments of the book, he sleeps with a woman several times whilst seemingly yo-yoing on the relative value of the current task he has been set.

There are allusions to many different authors and many different stories – admittedly, many I had not realised until I looked up a review of the book. This is where I perhaps see my problem. Whilst I’d never necessarily suggest a book is ‘too intelligent’ for me, I do feel that there is a lot more going on underneath the surface that may have just passed me by in my reading of the novel. Maybe if I was closer to some of the writers that McCarthy feels the need to echo (Delillo, Pynchon, Kafka and others), I might have got more out of the book.

I also feel that I don’t care much for the main character. If a lot of the narrative is based on his musings and machinations, it becomes difficult to feel much for him when you don’t particularly like him. Some of this negativity is encapsulated within the relationship he carries on with his lady friend, a relationship with a woman who plays little more than a sexual function within the character’s life. Towards the end, we begin to see more of her, but his dismissive treatment of that aspect of his life is just another reason why it is hard to care about the character in the bigger scheme of things. I don’t have to like all my characters, but this style of narrative begs for your empathy with at least part of his situation – something that I never really felt.

WIth that being said, I feel that Tom McCarthy, and specifically ‘Satin Island’, will be many peoples’ idea of their new favourite writer and new favourite book. Unfortunately, not for me. If anything, it feels like the type of books that gives ammunition to those who feel the Booker Prize doesn’t really represent the best, rather just the most left field, options across the span of a year.

 

Inadequate – Chapter 2, Part 1

Following on from the first chapter I posted a couple of days ago, here is the first part of the second chapter of the potential novel idea I’m toying with. To be honest, I’ve only written four chapters so far, so there isn’t a lot more past this, but I felt that posting these updates might help inspire me to keep writing! Do enjoy, and do comment below with your ideas, comments and feelings about the story thus far.

Chapter 2

Staring at the boy’s doughy face, a glistening globule of drool threatening to make a break for it from the corner of the boy’s mouth, the offending pen held out in front like a dangerous weapon, Steven fought a battle with the question he found himself considering on a more regular basis.

“Why do I fucking bother with this shit?”

Whilst his restraint maintained just enough of a grasp on the muscles that work his jaw so as not to shout that aloud in a child’s face (a sacking offence everywhere else; an accepted part of behaviour management at Mayfield), the question circled around his head like a Spirograph – moving around but not really going anywhere.

It was only period one of a five period day, and already it felt as if the world was conspiring against Steven. A misplaced set of keys (found by the front door) led to a missed train (by thirty seconds, the doors closed in his face) which left him no choice but to get the slower train (eight stations instead of three, a whole fourteen minutes longer).

This type of school journey wasn’t the exception, more the norm, and usually it wouldn’t have mattered to Steven. However, as he entered the wrought-iron gates, a hand forcing the tail of his shirt back under the control of his trousers, he remembered his line management meeting had been rescheduled for this morning. More specifically, four minutes ago.

Although many things seemed to go unnoticed within Mayfield’s four walls, tardiness to meetings was definitely frowned upon by members of senior leadership. Unable to control the pupils satisfactorily, they instead seemed to offload any lingering frustrations onto the people who worked hierarchically below them. It was jokingly referred to as ‘The Mushroom Approach to Management’ by the lesser members of staff; they were often left in the dark and fed bullshit, or so it seemed.

Following a dressing down by his head of department, a lecture that took longer than the minutes the meeting had been delayed by and was delivered with a twinkle in the eye, Steven’s general performance over the past two weeks was thoroughly scrutinised; a rigorous and important step to allow any professional to reflect, grow and improve on their ability to perform the role that is asked of them.

Three minutes later, a broken down photocopier was Steven’s next nemesis. Arbitrary opening and closing of drawers seemed to have little effect, as did his next move of twiddling and moving the various knobs and levers inside the machine. Even a swift kick (after a quick blind spot check for potential eye witnesses) made no difference. A trip to reprographics was the only real option left.

The reprographics room was a place that was best avoided unless truly necessary. Down several flights of stairs, in the bowels of the school, the room seemed to encapsulate every issue at the school, packaged neatly in a ten foot by six foot room. The corridor outside was faintly illuminated by the one working bulb; the walls damp to the touch. Any attempts to open the door had to be accompanied with a food, as the rusty hinges squeaked in protest. A man who had the appearance more akin to a hobbit than a human sat in the corner, flicking through dog-eared copies of White Dwarf magazine. This movement and the occasional grunt was the only real indication of humanity, the man clearly not employed for his social skills. A request, a grunt, some whirring and a flutter of paperwork. Simplicity in itself, yet one couldn’t leave the room without a desire to wipe their hands down the front of their trousers or skirt, whether they’d touched anything inside or not.

Upon receipt of his photocopying, Steven offered cursory thanks before exiting the room and making a break for the stairs. Pupils were already beginning to cluster in cliques, finding the most awkward and inappropriate places to stand as if on purpose. The corridors of the school already felt like a maze, why not have a few obstacles on the way just to make things that little bit harder? A tall, shaven-headed Year 11 stuck a foot out as Steven barrelled down the corridor, but a quick jump took him over this hurdle, a daily ritual that had begun to feel like an in joke between the two.

Unfortunately, his focus on the outstretched Doc Martins left him off guard. Raising his head at the last second, the collision with the Deputy Head was unavoidable. Papers, coffee, a pair of glasses flew through the air, the debris of a particularly academic crash. Laughs echoed loud and long down the corridor as pupils walked by, no desire to assist either of the fallen staff members. Scrabbling around on the floor for the glasses, the crunch that followed was inevitable. Even without seeing the outcome, Steven knew that the third pair of glasses this term would be necessary.

Not that he would have required glasses to notice the seething anger of the Deputy Head. The violent red colour that his face had turned would have been visible from across the playground, let alone from two feet away. Grabbing his papers off of the floor, Steven jumped to his feet and began to hurtle back down the corridor. He knew he’d pay for the collision later, but he had five periods to teach and was already running late for period 1. Thinking to himself, Steven pondered that the Deputy might even enjoy the delayed gratification that an after school rollicking would allow him. It’s the simple things that get you through the day, after all.

Breathing heavily, Steven afforded himself one last moment of relative sanity before he opened the door.

“Good morning, Year 7.”