30 for 30

As this site probably makes abundantly clear, I am fond of an arbitrary challenge. Working through every 24th book at my library has thrown up a few real gems (and a few stinkers) but has proven to be a worthwhile task. However, what if my arbitrary reading was guaranteed to provide a winner each time? Well, as guaranteed as something so subjective could ever be...

I was scrolling through Twitter when I came across this from @HuffPostBooks: 30 Books You Need to Read Before You Turn 30.  The books on this list range from classics to modern favourites, some of which I've read and a few that I've never heard of. Now, I turn 30 in four months and my husband (whose 30th is just days before my own) has been posting an essay every week about a key event from each year that we have been alive (if this sounds too worthy, the first essay was about Wrestlemania).  

The challenge is: can I have read all thirty of these books before my birthday?

(This was obvious from the context of the article but it's always best to be clear)

I'm going to try to work through them in the order they appear in the list, and I will plot my progress on this page.

Editor's note: I'm now very 30 and still working through the list. Such is life, eh?

UPDATE 16/08/2017:

The Painted Word

I can't pretend to know much about modern art. I like certain artists and styles and will happily wander through a gallery for a few hours, but my appreciation is so entirely subjective that there's no point pretending that I know what's going on. Thankfully, Tom Wolfe seems to defend that as an approach to art, saying that modern art is so dependent on literary interpretations that it is no more than 'the painted word', a form where the criticism and written interpretation says more than the piece itself.

If you've ever felt like a fraud for "not getting" Hurst, Emin and the like, or even older practitioners like Warhol and Liechtenstein, this book gives a crash course on some of the key art theory of the last hundred years (note: mentioning 'flatness' is a good way to sound like you know what you're talking about) whilst also mocking some of the worst excesses of art and art criticism. 

This is perhaps an odd choice to have on a list like this, but it's a reminder of the dangers of hubris and the validity of your own tastes and opinions. If growing up requires learning anything, these two lessons are a good place to start.

UPDATE 09/08/2017:


Persuasion front cover

I wrote a post when I was halfway through Persuasion bemoaning how little I was enjoying it compared to the Austen I'd read previously. My feeling was that it was an age thing, with Austen making a lot of sense to hormonally-challenged teenagers but maybe having less to say to reasonably-adjusted adults. Having now finished Persuasion, I wonder if it's not just a bad book.

Obviously, you kind of know where these books are going. The endpoint is clear from the outset and the pleasure comes from sitting back and enjoying the journey, but Persuasion didn't even give me that. Anne is too passive to be enjoyable as a heroine so her happy ending seems to come despite her, not because of her. The love stories of the other women resolve themselves conveniently rather than honestly, and there is an interesting discussion of the neutering of Louisa that I'd be willing to have at length. The book might position itself as a triumph of steadiness over frivolity, but a bit more fun might have done it a lot of good.

UPDATE 28/07/2017:


lerner

Maybe coming to this directly after reading a Franzen was a bad idea. I didn't massively enjoy Purity, but Franzen's prose is always very comfortable to slip into. Lerner has many of the preoccupations of Franzen - in fact, there's a recommendation from the latter on the back cover - but his writing lacks the rhythm and the characters are less firmly drawn. Leaving the Atocha Station is meant to have humour but I found little, and I certainly didn't find the "youthful idealism" that is supposed to prevent the novel falling into self-indulgence. The way that the protagonist's relationship with Spanish develops is very cleverly expressed: we go from fragmented grammatically awkward dialogue to much more fluent conversation as we progress. The way that Adam takes the drama out of other people's stories and situations to add to his self-created mystique is also smart, and a feature of narcissistic youth that is depressingly recognisable. However, much as I wouldn't want to be 16 again, I also don't necessarily want to read books where the main character has that level of maturity. 
UPDATE 15/07/2017:


Nietzsche Genealogy of Morals

I'm not entirely sure I can say that I've read this book, On The Genealogy of Morality. Yes, I read all the words, but not much of it really went in. This is mainly because I find Nietzsche insufferable, with views on strength and power that seem to come out of the reddit incel community. I just don't care. I think that there are some aspects of his discussions about the hypocrisy of punishment that are interesting but mainly he can go fuck himself. This is not a helpful review. Soz.

UPDATE 12/07/2017:


Lesabendio

Lesabendio is another properly weird novel. A German science fiction book from just before World War I, it tells the story of a race of aliens who are inspired to build a tower to see what is beyond their world. It brings in ideas about the morality of technology, art versus practicality, and what it is to be part of a community. 

While the writing does not particularly thrill me (and my German isn't yet good enough to know whether that's a Scheerbart issue or a translation one), it is a very fully realised description of a world totally alien to our own. The version I read included some of the illustrations that were put together to accompany the story, but I think most readers would be able to imagine these strange creatures from the prose alone. It also explores themes that are still relevant to our contemporary experience and, after reading the introduction, I was able to better appreciate some of the parodic intent behind the novel. 

This is perhaps more a curiosity for science fiction fans than a great work in its own right, but it's still interesting to read a book full of such fresh ideas despite being over a century old.

UPDATE 30/04/2017:


Delta of Venus

What an odd book this is. The erotic stories were written for a private collector who wanted the poetry kept out and the anatomical elements to shine through. What we end up with is a set of stories that range from the straightforwardly sensual to the unpleasantly violent, with tropes of incest and rape being written about as if they are as legitimate as other forms of sex. There is discussion of this being representative of a female language of sex, but that is complicated by the masculine dominance that often prevails. It's not always an easy read.

Where the stories get interesting is that there is often a lack of resolution. Stories just end, usually without resolving a conflict or satisfying a relationship, and the poetry and "female" quality of the pieces perhaps comes from this open-endedness. Despite the outlandish plots, the writing is clear and precise, preventing it from lapsing into absurdity. It is intriguing and challenging, arousing and disconcerting, and certainly makes Fifty Shades seem inadequate from every angle.

UPDATE 09/03/2017:


Housekeeping

I did not get as much from this book as I'd hoped. Housekeeping has some beautifully lyrical passages and an intriguing sense of the uncanny but, like many pieces of American literary fiction, it left me ultimately cold.

Some critics note the lack of a clear plot, but that was not the issue for me. In fact, I think the style complements the story well. Ruthie and her sister Lucille are left under the care of numerous relatives after the unusual disappearance of their mother, and the caregiving is very different in each case. Finally, their aunt Sylvie takes charge, but her transient past leaves her unsuited to domesticity in a small town. As the girls become further withdrawn, civilised society feels the need to step in.

With this story in mind, the poetry of the prose seems right, reflecting the romanticism of Sylvie's lifestyle and encouraging the reader to approach the book, and the world, in a different way. We may not approve of her childrearing techniques, but there is an authenticity to the way she lives that is endearing. She simply is of a different world. 

From that perspective, this book deserves its place on the list, as it is one that demands empathising with characters who feel very alien. I just always felt distanced from them, perhaps viewing them from one remove just as Sylvie views the world. It is a book that I will keep thinking about, though, so perhaps a second reading in the future will unveil something that I have missed.

UPDATE 28/11/2016:


Midnight's Children by [Rushdie, Salman]

No, I didn't manage to read this in the twelve hours since my last entry. In fact, I've already read Midnight's Children twice and have no great desire to reread it again. Sorry.

Not that I'm saying it's a bad book, far from it. It's just so rich and dense that it's quite a challenging read, one that you can't skate through but have to fully engage with. I like books with that quality, but it can be tough going (particularly on a Monday. Do not give me difficult tasks on a Monday).

Midnight's Children is an example of magical realism, with the birth of children at the exact moment of India's release from British rule used as a way to explore the birth of the Indian nation. All the children possess magical gifts, and we see major historical events through their experiences. It's a sprawling story and very immersive with it. We are treated to a large cast of characters, all flawed and richly drawn, but the vividly descriptive prose and twists of the story can make it difficult to follow.

Perhaps I would prefer this book if I was more aware of the historical period it depicts. On second reading, I certainly got more from it than I did at first, but I still feel like I've only scratched the surface. One of the books that I can tell is a work of genius, even if I don't think I'm knowledgeable enough to get the full effect from it.

UPDATE 23/12/2016:


The Sense of an Ending

After tackling the beast that is A Brief History of Seven Killings, Barnes's short novel seemed like the perfect follow-up read. But I shouldn't have been fooled by its brevity: The Sense of an Ending contains life, death, love, philosophy and everything in between. It's a quick read, but one that lingers far beyond the last page.

The book is split into two sections, and I found the shorter opening section the most effective. Through the narrated memories of an older man, we look back on his youth and the precocious intelligence he and his friends shared. They are rocked by a tragic event at their school but are able to philosophise the emotion out of it; however, the event is echoed later in Tony's life, and he is forced to reinterpret those moments and to reevaluate his role in his own life and the lives of those around him. As such, the book is also about memory, nostalgia, and the way we choose to narrate our own lives.

In some ways, the book is incredibly simple. The twist at the end is surprisingly banal, but it is the way it makes Tony reassess his earlier life that is important. The book's inclusion on this list makes sense from that perspective: it is reminding us that we constantly choose what tales to tell about ourselves, narrating our lives to fit the image of ourselves we've concocted, and that the memories of others, the "truths" of the past, might be reluctant to fit into these neat patterns. An important, if uncomfortable, truth, and an important, if uncomfortable, book.

UPDATE 27/11/2016:


Everything I Never Told You


I was slightly concerned to see a review from Marie Claire on the front of Everything I Never Told You declaring it to be like The Lovely Bones. This raised the spectre of oversentimental fiction designed to wring out a tear rather than to get to the truth of relationships, family and other big life thingummies. Thankfully, Celeste Ng has made something far more meaningful.

The story does start with a Lovely Bones feel as the reader discovers that a young girl is dead, although the circumstances are as yet unknown. There is a thriller element to the rest of the book, as the reader and the girl's family try to piece together what happened to her in her final moments. However, it is about so much more than this. The family is mixed-race, a blond American mother married to a Chinese-American man, and the 1970's setting means that this is a serious barrier to their acceptance in small-town society. Perhaps as a reaction to this, the parents become desperate to create something more for their children, and the underlying tensions within the nuclear family unit become increasingly obvious the further we read. By the end, everyone in the family has experienced their own revelations, but will it bring them closer together or force them apart?

Ng's prose is devastating in its simplicity and it is impossible not to be caught up in the individual dramas. From a '30 for 30' perspective, this book earns inclusion on the list as it reminds us of the delicate balance that exists within families, that our parents are creatures of want as well, and that we can never fully know anyone, not even the ones we are closest to. The realisation that our parents are fallible is one of the earliest disappointments in life; Celeste Ng here forces us to acknowledge their complexity, reminding us that our actions impact them as heavily as their's affect us. Learning that is one of the most important lessons of maturity.

UPDATE 16/10/2016:


Americanah

Americanah is a real treasure of a book from an author who I had shamefully not read before. I've commented previously on how this list of books seems much more suited to an American audience than a British one but, like all the best stories, Adichie's novel captures something universal.

Although the book is nominally a love story, it is far more politically charged than that. A young Nigerian woman heads for America to study, leaving behind the boy she loves and the life she knew. In the US, the issue of race comes up in a way that it never had in Lagos and she is forced to reconsider her identity and the way she is viewed. She makes a success of her new life but feels the pull of her native land calling her back. Can she return to her old life or is she too much of an Americanah to fit in anymore?

The two main worlds in this book are ones that I have no personal familiarity with - life in middle-class Nigeria contrasted with the liberal academic world of collegiate America - but Adichie writes such vivid description that these unfamiliar settings come clearly to life. The nuances of the racial issues are also presented in a way that a white Brit can understand, showing how it is in the background of so many interactions, impossible to avoid.

I was fully immersed in the world of the story and the 500-odd pages flew by. The resolution of the weak love story was a disappointing way to end such a successful book but the beautiful prose and lively description made this well worth persevering with.

UPDATE 20/9/16:

Invisible Man (Penguin Modern Classics) by [Ellison, Ralph]

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison may count as the most important book that I've read off this list so far. Although published in the '50s, its portrayal of African American life is still worryingly relevant, with racial tension and violence an everyday event. Ellison uses the idea of invisibility to describe what it is to be black in America: even when people claim to see you, they only see a reflection of themselves or their expectations of what you will be. The reality of the human being is never truly explored, and the nameless narrator starts to find his own understanding of truth is challenged too as he tries to make a new life for himself in Harlem.

It's a really hard book to sum up in a few lines as it covers so much but also has some interesting sylistic features that deserve to be examined. Considering it's a debut novel, Ellison's style and voice is incredibly sharp. The different rhythms of speech between black and white, northern and southern, characters is captured clearly, and there is a lyricism to some of the longer speeches that is truly unique. It can take a bit of getting used to, perhaps like the shift that is needed to read Toni Morrison's fluid prose, but once you have it, the way it evokes time, place and character is fascinating. The funeral scene in the latter stages of the book is one of the most powerful pieces of prose I've ever read, more than making up for the difficulty I had settling into the book in the earlier chapters. You'll have easier reads, but you might not have more worthwhile ones.

I feel like I'll need to read Invisible Man a couple more times to be able to fully unpack some of the themes on show. Thankfully, it'll be a pleasure to return to this story. It's just a shame that more of its lessons are still yet to be learned by society as a whole.

UPDATE 6/7/16:

I can cover two books from the list today: Plato's Symposium and Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation


Plato's SymposiumDept. of Speculation

Starting with Plato, this short piece about the nature of love is a hard one to explain. A group of ancient Greek intellectuals, including the famous Socrates, are sitting around, having a drink, when they decide to each give a speech on the nature of Eros (Love) to see what their different interpretations are and who can speak most brilliantly on the subject.

The first thing to say is that the Greek ideal of love was much less hetero than that of modern times, and it may catch some readers by surprise to hear of these old men discussing physical love with younger boys. However, the discussion of love moves onto a discussion of the feelings that transcend lust, the kind of companionship that brings true love with it, until Socrates trumps them all by talking about the love of wisdom as the real ideal. There are some nice ideas and some interesting rhetorical devices at play, and it's certainly far less stodgy than some readers might imagine the ancient Greeks to have been, but it left me a little cold. I think I get enough of old men talking loudly and showing off in the local pub as it is; I don't need it from my books too.

Dept. of Speculation is almost a harder book to classify than Plato. It's more a series of excerpts, glimpses at the inside of a failing marriage, that is supposed to come together to tell the truth about relationships, parenthood, and other serious adulty things.

I found the structure of it difficult to get into but, once I did, I could appreciate how well-controlled the format was. As a married but childless woman, and one who isn't particularly bothered about most of the trappings of modern life, a lot of the concerns spoken about in the book didn't strike a chord with me. There were certainly some moments of painful recognition, things that were said or actions performed that were only ever going to make the situation worse, but a lot of the power of a story like this comes from reader empathy. Ultimately, though, not being like the people in this book doesn't seem like too bad a thing.

So two books about love, but ones that couldn't have been much more different from one another. Just a shame that neither quite spoke to me.

UPDATE 8/6/16:


Kurt Vonnegut: Letters

Kurt Vonnegut is a writer who I've been aware of for a while, yet without ever properly reading him. Starting with a collection of his letters is probably not ideal, but I do now have a real sense of what he was like as a man. This book's been put on the list because it reminds one of the passing of time and the persistence of life and creativity even in our most troubled times. I like that idea and, sometimes, I liked the Vonnegut on show here. There are letters in which his humour can come across as cruel or where you get a sense that his relationships with his children (notably Nanny) were very strained but, even at his worst or at his lowest, he was always creative and engaged with the wider world around him. He was a writer who tried to draw attention to the importance of kindness and building meaningful relationships with those around you. Maybe he did not always manage it but he certainly tried, and it remains a noble idea.

The book deserves its place on this '30 for 30' list if only for that.

UPDATE 4/5/16:


I Love Dick


With a title like I Love Dick, I was expecting something quite fun, maybe a bit naughty, from this book. Perhaps a rhapsody about life as a hetero woman, full of earthy wisdom and the kind of anecdotes that would make Caitlin Moran blush. Instead, it's a weird mix of memoir, literary treatise and artistic manifesto. 

Kraus and her husband have dinner with an acquaintance, the Dick of the title, and she finds herself falling in love with him. The rest of the book is the couple writing love letters to him, creating a fantasy of complicity and artistic merit out of this infatuation. Dick himself seems to struggle with the predicament, sometimes showing a disinterested theoretical appreciation of the 'project', sometimes feeling (understandably) uncomfortable and violated. Kraus writes about wanting to turn her emotions, her subjective experience, into art, talking about other female artists who have found the universal within the personal to create a very feminine type of artistic expression. Indeed, when she critiques other artists and explores their work, the reader has to admire her penetrating and perceptive writing. It's when she focuses on her own experience that the whole thing becomes too self-involved and narcissistic. That's a word that Kraus argues against in relation to her work but this seems like the kind of book that the #firstworldproblems hashtag was designed for.

Whether this is literary fiction, memoir or some kind of weird artistic hybrid of the two, I didn't like it. There were some aspects of the discussions of married life or the plight of the woman as artist that were interesting, but the lack of stability in the piece meant that liking these bits was a bit like panning for gold: after a while, you're grateful for any glimmers and specks you can find. Perhaps if I'd had no expectations about this book, I would have approached it with a more open mind and got more from it. I just expected more belly laughs from a book called I Love Dick. Proof that you should not judge a book by its title, let alone its cover.

UPDATE 24/2/16: 


White Teeth - Zadie Smith

Sometimes it can be a real pleasure to reread a book, particularly one that you first read at a very different time in your life. I read White Teeth as an impressionable teenager and am pleased that most of my good impressions about the book remain. It does start to get a bit over-plotted and contrived at the end, but the quality of the writing and liveliness of the characters more than makes up for it.

As with My Brilliant Friend, one of the real delights about the book is the way it explores the inner life of that terrifying creature, the teenage girl. Irie is a smart, interesting young woman, but her neuroses about her appearance and her desire to distance herself from her family cause her many hours of distress. She becomes the heart of the book, a sympathetic character in a story that gives us many people to dislike.

The ideas about identity, friendship, love, and fate are explored in a way that only becomes cumbersome at the end. However, by that point, you'll be so won over that you won't mind. Well worth revisiting.

UPDATE 3/2/16: Oh my goodness, I have neglected this page (and these books) very badly recently. On the bright side, Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend has definitely reminded me of why I was interested in this list in the first place.


My Brilliant Friend

The text beautifully captures what it is to be a young woman, navigating friendships, families and first loves, often badly. The fears and motivations of narrator Elena ring so true, particularly in the way her relationship with the exceptional Lila veers between love and hate. The cover makes it look like it will be a domestic tale, particularly as it is based in quite a patriarchal place and time, but the girls' actions display passion, intelligence and power, showing that they are not the passive objects that some men see them as. 

I'm not sure whether I'll be picking up the next in the series any time soon - it didn't quite grab me to that extent - but it did strike me as a story that has a universal quality and a charm that is not always to be found in these large sagas.

UPDATE 1/12/15:  This was my most recent '30 for 30' read:


The Bluest Eye

I read plenty of works by people of different genders, nationalities, etc., and generally I am able to engage with them, enjoy the stories, and appreciate the cultural and social differences.  I don't find this with Toni Morrison.  She writes with such an (what appears to me to be an) authentically black American voice that I feel a lot of distance from the characters and their lives.  I feel like I'm reading something important and truthful, but I can never engage completely.

'The Bluest Eye' investigates ideas of racial beauty and self-image, telling the story through different voices and with a non-linear timeline.  Morrison herself has admitted that it's not entirely successful as a narrative - it is in fact her first novel - and I found it a less satisfying read than her 1987 classic 'Beloved'.  It's interesting to see an early work from such a respected author: you can see the themes that are going to become dominant over time but also that no writer is born polished.  That's quite reassuring for someone still working on that first proper manuscript!

As with 'The Sabbath', the inclusion of this book on the list makes more sense perhaps for an American reader than a UK one, but it does say a lot about the power of beauty and self-image on the development of young women.

UPDATE 1/11/15: I've finished this:



This was not the cover of the edition that I read, but seeing this version did make me a bit reluctant to pick up the book.  After all, it looks like something Morrissey would write.  However, it is up there with the best books I've read this year.  It follows the lives of four friends as they leave college and try to make their way in the world.  The focus moves increasingly onto Jude, a troubled but brilliant law student whose back story is released to us in short, painful flurries throughout the novel.  

When I started the book, I had little time for most of the characters but Yanagihara has a way of drawing their flaws so sympathetically that you start to engage with them and care for them very quickly.  I don't want to give away anything because I think it's a book that you all should be reading RIGHT NOW. I will say that I wept at the end, proper full-on sobs that probably lasted throughout most of the last 100 pages.  It was an exhausting experience.

'A Little Life' has deservedly won many plaudits.  Those who dismiss it accuse it of repetition, showing too many successful characters, and being 'boring'.  I think this partially misses the point.  Yes, many of the characters achieve great things but they all struggle with aspects of their lives and identities, never becoming immune to self-doubt, depression, and the like.  And the repetition and focus on mundane things is because that's what life is like, at least most of the time.  For the successful and the not-so-successful, the big moments are surrounded by the little moments of a little life.  Even for someone who lives through as much as Jude, life is just a small, vulnerable, fleeting experience.


That said, I can understand those who never warm to the characters or who roll their eyes at another brief mention of a trip to exotic climes (I did, a couple of times), but it is a book that rewards dedication.  If you give yourself over to it, this story will take you through so much of life that 700+ pages still won't feel like enough.

UPDATE 13/10/15: Bad news. It's my birthday today and there is no way that I am going to get anywhere near completing this reading challenge.  Not unless I can get an awful lot of reading done in the next six hours.  Nope.  It's done.

It was always a big ask, particularly when many of the titles have not been readily available (at least, not without ordering them for delivery online). I'm still going to read the list. After all, I'll be thirty for the whole of the year. If they're good books, they'll still be relevant and worth reading. And if they're not, being 29 or 30 is not going to make a vast amount of difference.

Next time, I'm going to have to be a bit more realistic about how long it takes to read a lot of books, particularly when there is still other reading to complete, stuff to write and work to do. I like the idea of reading from a list though, as it does encourage reading outside of my comfort zone.  In fact, I've had a message from the library that 'A Little Life' is ready for collection.  With the time pressure off, I'll be able to read it at leisure.

UPDATE 27/9/15:


I think this was the first text that made it obvious that the list is an American one.  'The Sabbath' by A.J. Heschel is a classic of Jewish spiritual literature, which I can safely say is not a genre that I have had much call to peruse.  The UK simply does not have a large Jewish community, at least not outside some of the urban centres, so their religion and traditions are not such a part of day-to-day life as they seem to be in New York and other US cities.  

That said, this is an interesting read even for an atheist heathen like me.  The idea of having a day of the week devoted to the soul, to family, is one that many of us could do with considering.  It's almost a call to mindfulness, one of the breakout pop-psych ideas of the past year that has been proven to actually have a positive impact on the way that we live.  Heschel stresses that the Sabbath is innately holy, its importance not just stemming from us taking it as a day of peace and serenity, but the idea of a day separate from work, consumerism and anxiety is certainly a nice one.

The big idea that I took away is that we should treat time with the same respect as we treat space (the realm of stuff), as a commodity that we should value and attempt to make the best of.  I think we can all appreciate the wisdom there.

UPDATE 8/9/15: 

I'm so so happy that 'Middlemarch' is on the list as it is one of my favourite books of all time.  For all her faults, Dorothea is a fantastic heroine, smart and independent.  That she ends up making such a bad marriage is one of the great tragedies of English literature, but her final redemption is beautiful and cathartic.  Some argue that she ends up with her inferior, but after the unhappiness of her first marriage it feels only right that she should be with someone who makes her happy.  I also get the impression that she can be more of her true self in this second relationship, which surely is what matters.  I shall say no more for fear of epic spoilerage.


It is a great book for something like '30 for 30' because it follows several young women as they try to establish themselves in the world.  Obviously, marriage is the only real way for them to do so at this time, so it becomes an exploration of motives, desires, and expectations.  Where Dorothea is idealistic and wants to find a way to live a noble and valuable life, Rosamund is happy to make a good marriage that will allow her to live both comfortably and fashionably.  Although Eliot's own preferences are clear, it is telling that both women have strengths and flaws, and both are mocked when being at their most egotistical or naive.  For me, the reason it is such a great realist text is that the characters are all treated quite even-handedly.  Even the horrendous Casaubon is allowed to be pitied for dedicating his life to out-of-date work.  It feels like a real slice of life, and makes a lovely comparison piece with a book like 'Anna Karenina'.  If I had the time to reread this now, I would (very gladly, too), but I must keep moving on.  The dreaded 3-0 is looming ever closer...

UPDATE 5/9/15:  I thought I'd read Jonathan Franzen's 'The Corrections' before but I read it again just to be sure.  How I'd forgotten so much of it, I'm not entirely certain.



The primary plot is simple enough: as Enid's husband descends further into his Parkinson's Disease, she becomes desperate to have the family together for one final Christmas.  However, her children are, if anything, more dysfunctional than she is, making it doubtful that she will get her wish.

It's a simple story, but the telling of it is anything but simple.  We skip back-and-forth between time periods, seeing the family at different points.  We inhabit the world of each character long enough to understand their lives and personalities, then are wrenched from them to learn about someone else.  It could be distancing, being torn from character to character, but instead you see the interwoven nature of their lives and how important each of them is, regardless of how deeply flawed they are.

I don't like Jonathan Franzen the man, but I can't help but admire Jonathan Franzen the author.  The final page of this novel is close to perfect, a call to life and joy and the possibility of redemption for everyone.  For the first hundred pages, you will probably hate each character you encounter; by the end, you can't help but cheer for them.  It's a modern classic.

UPDATE 28/8/15: This is an easy update to write as, thankfully, I have already read the beast of a book that is 'Ulysses'.  And no, I don't have any great desire to read it again. 



When I was at university, one of the modules the English department offered was a 'Ulysses'-based one, where you read the book over the course of a term and studied it section by section. Bearing in mind I did one course where a term involved reading 'War and Peace', 'Anna Karenina', 'The Master and Margarita' and other Russian classics, you can see that even the academic population views 'Ulysses' as a special case.

For those of you not in the know, 'Ulysses' covers a day in Dublin life, mainly following Leopold Bloom and members of his family. It's considered to be one of the key pieces of modernist literature, so it has a stream-of-consciousness style of writing. In places, there are unpunctuated sentences running over multiple pages and, although the text is split into eighteen sections, it has no chapter breaks. And that's even before you get to the connections with the classic mythology of Ulysses/Odysseus. So not the easiest of reads.

I blogged about my experience as I was reading this (the first one is here and they follow on from that) so I won't get too deep into it again. Suffice it to say that for every aspect of the book that I enjoyed, there was a lot that I found baffling, irritating, or possibly both. There would be a long section about masturbating that would start to get really old, then there would be a lovely turn of phrase that would re-engage me with the whole text. This ebb and flow, mimicking the ups and downs of normal life, is probably deliberate but it does not make it any easier to follow.

There's no doubt that it is a great work, and those more educated than me assure me that it is worth multiple rereads so that you pick up all the little things that are missed in the first reading. I can understand that. In the first read, it can be a struggle to follow the action and characters in places; once you've cracked that, you can probably read it again with closer attention to the detail and language.

But not this year.

UPDATE 25/8/15: It's a bit of a disaster - one month has passed and I have only got one book further with my challenge.  Perhaps approaching them in order was not the wisest thing when it meant waiting for a library reservation.

No matter.  I have finally made it to reading George Saunders' 'In Persuasion Nation'.

From the reviews and the blurb, I was expecting a funny satire on modern life, consumerism and politics.  It is certainly satirical, but I rarely found it funny. Some bits made me chuckle, granted, but most of the stories just left me feeling deeply sad.  I suppose that is the nature of a lot of satire, as it makes you question the way that we live our lives.  Perhaps tragicomedy is the word for this kind of thing.

Let me take just a few of the short stories to give you an idea.  There's '93990', a story about animal experimentation where a clearly exceptional creature is killed to see why it did not suffer like the others, with no recognition that it might have been something new and exciting.  Or 'commcomm' and the title story itself, where only death seems to allow characters to see the true meaning of life and what they should have been striving for all along.  I was not guffawing.

The stories are cleverly written and do put a mirror up to some of the worst excesses of our lives.  It's enough to make you mute the TV during ad breaks.  I suppose that's something.


UPDATE 25/7/15: I absolutely flew through Didion's 'The Year of Magical Thinking'.  It was not a comfortable read, dealing as it does with the year following the death of Didion's husband John, but it is written with such honesty and eloquence that it was hard to put down.

The magical thinking idea comes from the way that Didion found herself thinking in terms of what might bring John back.  If she leaves his book on the nightstand, won't he come back to read it?  Strangely, as an OCD sufferer, I can recognise this desire to control the uncontrollable from my day-to-day life.  I can only imagine how much harder it must be to fight such thoughts in this situation.

The unbearable situation Didion finds herself in is compounded by the hospitalisation of her daughter, Quintana.  They have to delay the funeral as she recovers, but Didion's grieving process is further disrupted by Quintana's failing health and subsequent readmission for treatment.  Tragically, Quintana was dead within two years, a story that Didion also wrote about for her memoir 'Blue Nights'.  It's hard to comprehend so much suffering, but 'The Year of Magical Thinking' allows the reader an insight into what it is to love, to forge a life with someone, to lose them, and to have to face up to one's own mortality in the process.

Heavy stuff for someone just approaching 30.  It's a sad realisation that these meditations on grief and loss are only going to get more relevant over time.


UPDATE 11/7/15: Good news!  I've already read the second book on the list.  Like most literary teenage girls, I had my Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf phases, although neither really appealed to me in the way I felt they were supposed to.

'To The Lighthouse' was a particularly problematic book for me.  I struggled to get halfway through the first time I read it, and was still not enamoured when I read it through at university.  The story of the Ramsay family is meant to be normal life transformed into something more epic, "a mythic reflection on time, gender, morality, and death". I can see that, and the intricacies of the nonlinear writing style have to be admired, but I can appreciate the worth of a book without necessarily liking it.
It is a book that I will return to periodically in the hope of finding what I keep being told I'm missing. There is something about 'To The Lighthouse' that is haunting, I won't deny that, and Mrs Ramsay makes a powerful presence both alive and dead; there is just something about the experience of reading this that seems lacking. Based on popular opinion, it's probably something lacking within me rather than the book!

UPDATE 7/7/15: Took a while to get to it, but I have finished and enjoyed Alice Munro's 'Lives of Girls and Women'.

munro


The book follows Del, a Canadian teenager, as she tackles life's big questions.  Del's first encounters with friendship, sex and death were painfully familiar to me, and I'm sure many female readers would recognise that odd mix of fear and attraction that so many teenage experiences combine.  The book is never guilty of rose-tinted nostalgia; instead, the episodes retain their rough edges, are perhaps defined by these edges.  The poverty is there; the sense of threat; the disillusionment of growing up.

Few of the books I've read this year have been better written by this.  It might not seem like a revolutionary plot or set of themes, but few writers have tackled growing up (and growing up female) with such shrewd observation and honesty.


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