Friday, 27 September 2013

Reading round-up

I was scheduled to review Simon Mawer's The Fall today, but it turns out The Fall was one of those novels I simply couldn't force myself through. Having been equally bored by Mawer's The Glass Room, I think this may be the end of my acquaintance with his novels. In place of that blog post, therefore, I thought I'd round up my recent reads:

Stephen Hawking writes in the introduction to A Brief History of Time that he was advised, while writing the book, that every equation he included would halve the number of sales. (One can only imagine how many copies the book would have sold had he decided not to include e = mc2). This advice hasn't deterred Manjit Kumar from including multiple equations in Quantum, a popular history of quantum physics from its beginnings in the early twentieth century to the present day, although the book, framed as a 'clash of titans' between Einstein and Bohr, tails off after the deaths of its two principal protagonists. And indeed, although the outline of quantum physics is tricky for the general reader, and harder to get through than Hawking's summary, I felt upon finishing Kumar's work that I had understood much more of what I had read than I did when reading Hawking's superficially more accessible text. This is probably because of Kumar's attention to the history of quantum physics, which introduces us to why certain research questions were deemed key in the first place and, via wrong turns and dead ends, shows us how novel quantum concepts really were. We also get a mini-biography of the key physicists involved, although I wished I hadn't bought this book on Kindle - it made it far too difficult to check the notes at the back when I forgot people's names.

Readers of this blog will know how I feel about Curtis Sittenfeld's debut novel, Prep. (I also quite enjoyed The Man of My Dreams and American Wife.) I was thrilled to get my hands on a copy of her new novel, Sisterland, at the library, and, other than Prep (obviously) I think it's her best yet. Ostensibly the story of twin sisters, Kate and Violet, who possess psychic 'senses', this novel is at its best when exploring themes that impinge only tangentially on the main plot line. Infuriating as I found full-time mother Kate's musings on parenthood - she criticises another mother for spending nine hours a day apart from her child while being seemingly unaware that her own husband spends precisely as long away from his two children - she is another complex, frustrating protagonist from Sittenfeld, and as difficult to like or analyse as Prep's Lee. Sittenfeld is also, unsurprisingly, wonderful on sisterhood and on adolescence, and on the little scores that sisters add up in their conversations with each other, even the most loving sisters. If you can get past the fact that the publishers, inexplicably, have decided to depict Kate and Violet as escapees from a Victorian drawing-room on the cover, it's a great read.

Thankfully - given the expense of the US hardcover edition - this little-known novel is now available on Kindle. I've been wanting to read this ever since I read Nic's review over at Eve's Alexandria, and it didn't disappoint. This is an alternative history with a slightly more unusual twist; what would have happened if Britain had lost the First World War and an alternative Hitler had arisen here? Our narrator, Oxford don Geoffrey Brooke, initially seems to be merely a pawn in this new world, suffering the relentless march of 'Modernism' alongside the rest of the citizenry. Indeed, given that the first scene of the novel sees Geoffrey furtively seeking a rendez-vous with another man in a public toilet, we can guess that Modernism may have been even harder on him than on other citizens. However, as the plot unfolds, we realise that Geoffrey is, simultaneously, more closely implicated in the rise of John Arthur, the alternative Adolf, than we thought initially, and more possessed of agency to stop what is happening. The brilliance of Ian MacLeod's novel lies in what he doesn't alter about 1940s Britain; gay men are still forced to meet furtively in toilets, neighbours tell each other that Jews are perfectly nice people but they don't want them living next door, and Oxford dons are treated with a deference outweighing their actual achievements. (Some may find the most shocking detail about this alternative world the fact that the Bodleian has extended borrowing rights.) Geoffrey's understated narration proves the perfect counter-point to an idea that initially seems a bit sensationalist, a bit Fatherland, and I think this is one of the best alternative histories I've read - if you discount Owen Sheers's Resistance, that is.

To leave the worst till last. I'm afraid I wasn't impressed by this guide to 'slow reading' by American writer Francine Prose. To an extent, the devil was in the details, and any selection of extracts from other novels as good examples for budding writers is bound to divide opinion. (My particular problem was in the extracts from Henry Green as examples of good dialogue: I've never read a full novel by Henry Green, so I cannot judge him as a writer, but the extracts Prose gives seemed to me to be a lesson in how not to write dialogue, as they suffered from a severe lack of commas.) There's also the problem of readers' inevitably different reactions to novels. (Although how anyone can read the opening scene of Pride and Prejudice as evidence that Mr and Mrs Bennett have an essentially happy marriage, I do not know.) There's a dose of literary snobbery (why should we read 'Austen and Bronte' and assume she is referring to Emily?) However, I think I knew I was done with this book when Prose asserted, early on, that 'writing good sentences' is a laudable aim for a young writer. To be sure, I know what she means, and she has found numerous examples of beautiful sentences for us to learn from. But surely the best advice you can give to any writer is to not try and write good sentences until you actually have something to say? And, amazingly enough, all the sentences Prose cites as examples of brilliant prose do have something to say: as she takes pains to point out, they're working sentences, telling us details about character, plot and theme without burying us in clumsy exposition. That's more than writing good sentences; you could write a beautiful sentence in a series of instructions for a flat-pack bookshelf, if you were so inclined, but that wouldn't make the instructions great literature.

And thus ends today's rant. October schedule will be posted shortly!

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