Friday, April 1, 2011

A Bevy of Books

It has been a while since I've done a 'what I've been reading lately post'. Most of these books I've read in the last few months, although in the case of Freedom (Fourth Estate), I actually read it last July in proof form (thanks Jane!) whilst on holiday in Fiji, and now rather belatedly I'm joining the chorus of readers espousing the virtues of this book. Franzen's novels might only come around once a decade, but they are quite seriously literary crack. I've had nine months to ruminate on the fact that I enjoyed Freedom even more than The Corrections and I think that was because I found it more hopeful. Despite 9/11, despite the GFC, despite the tragic/comic events that befall Patty and Walter, this book has a lot of heart. It is both hilariously funny - I actually had to read some parts aloud to hubby - and moving. It is ambitious in scope and unflinchingly honest; it reads as though it was written without any pretension or fear. Fingers crossed novel number three isn't another nine years away. Oh, and it was great conversation fodder at my office for a few months. There was a lot of hype about this originally self-published book, Anthropology of an American Girl (Allen & Unwin) by a young American writer. After some success it was picked up by a mainstream publisher, edited somewhat, and released to the wider trade. I started it on a Sydney-Perth flight and couldn't put it down. It probably could have done with some further cuts, but one reviewer called this book 'literary crack' (which is what I called Freedom when I was reading it) and it isn't hard to see why. Set on New York's Long Island in the eighties, the book follows the romantic adventures of a young heroine, Eveline, from high-school into college. The plot sounds kind of generic but the execution is entirely original. Some of the language lapses into pretension, but some of the passages are truly inspired, and the picture of first love that Thayer Hamann creates is scarily authentic. Remember when you were so in love that you thought you might die? My main frustration with this book, apart from some of the too flowery language, was that Eveline is not an entirely sympathetic character. Of course she doesn't have to be, that's just the way the author imagined her into existence, but I did find myself occasionally wanting to throw the book at my tiny (plane) window because of her passivity. Eveline just kept letting bad stuff, and bad men, happen to her. Having said that I thought the young male characters in this book were some of the best developed and truest I had read in a long time. The author 'got' the bravado and competitive nature of young men down pat. And I couldn't stop thinking about this book a long time after I finished it. I'll be very interested to read what Thayer Hamann does next.

Ever since I read Brooklyn I've been completely in love with Colm Toibin's writing, not to mention the fact that he is absolutely adorable. I went back in time and read his novel based on the later life of Henry James, The Master. I lent it to my Mum afterwards and we both agree that it is an almost perfect book. I'm serious when I say reading his prose is a bit like listening to The Beatles White Album or gazing at one of Van Gogh's later paintings; the beauty of it warms your soul. I also read Toibin's latest collection of short stories The Empty Family (Picador), which had me weeping on a plane. I can't gush enough about how much I love Toibin's writing. The Pleasure Seekers (Bloomsbury) is a gorgeous first novel about a blended British/Indian family. In the late 60s Babo heads to London to study and work, and his family are initially horrified when he declares that he is determined to marry his Welsh girlfriend Sian. The book then follows Babo and Sian and their families over the next thirty years or so and the cast of assembled characters are delightful and funny and richly drawn and were very hard to leave when the book finished. I love, love, loved this.

In the book world we call Maggie O'Farrell a literary/mass market cross-over author. In other words, she's hugely popular, and with her expert plotting and sympathetic characters, it isn't hard to work out why. Her latest, The Hand That First Held Mine (Headline) has two separate but interlinked stories; the first follows a young woman, Lexie, and her love affair with an older man in the 1950s London art scene and the second heroine is a present-day young mother and artist, Elina, who is struggling after the traumatising birth of her first child. I got quite teary at the end of this book, which I read in one wonderful weekend.

And now to a book that hasn't come out yet ... The End of Everything (Picador) is being published in the middle of the year, but it has already done the rounds in our publicity and marketing departments. Unanimously my colleagues and I loved it. The author, Megan Abbott, is an award-winning crime writer, but this is a bit of a 'literary' departure for her, but it does contain crime elements. Told from the point-of-view a thirteen-year-old girl whose best friend goes missing one summer, it reads like a cross between Virgin Suicides and The Lovely Bones. It has an almost retro feel to it, even though it is contemporary, or perhaps it is just because it is set in childhood. It is very perceptive about that age when sexual feelings first begin to stir, but in heart and mind you are still a child. The sense of menace Abbott builds is very powerful and it has a great ending too, quite controversial. A good book for reading groups methinks.
In between all the books I read for work (and you can read more about them in this interview with me at The Australian Literature Review) I've also read David Vann's sad but beautiful Legend of a Suicide and Caribou Island (Penguin), Alex Miller's romantic Lovesong (Allen & Unwin), William Boyd's Any Human Heart (which is about to be released as a mini-series with Matthew McFadyen) and his great spy novel Restless (Bloomsbury) and I took a trip down memory lane recently and revisited Gone With the Wind, which I hadn't read since I was 15!

At the moment I'm thoroughly engrossed in Julie Orringer's The Invisible Bridge (Penguin) which is a historical romantic saga that reminds me a bit of Doctor Zhivago. For a first time novel from a young American writer it is pretty darn impressive, and its a real page-turner as well. In fact I might get back to it right now, but meanwhile I'm happy to take recommendations for other books. I find personal recommendations are still the best way to discover new books and authors, particularly as I await patiently for Jeffrey Eugendies new book The Marriage Plot (Fourth Estate) to hit shelves later this year. Squeal, squeal! I've already been promised an early proof.


Karena said...

Really excellent reviews and comments. I am an avid reader,and just have to take more time from blogging for my favotite relaxation pastime.

I am on the 2nd of the trilogy of The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo. It is fascinating.

Do come and enter my Giveaway (something French Inspired) from the Zhush!!You will love it!

Art by Karena

Louise said...

Yes the Larsson trilogy is good, isn't it? The Swedish movies are worth a look too.

Brooke said...

I share your strong feelings for Colm Toibin's books, I devoured his Brooklyn. Thanks for the great reviews, I look forward to getting my hands on some of them!

what are they wearing now said...

Thank you Louise for the great book reviews. As Easter is fast approaching I am planning to check out my library site and place a couple on order. I agree, and always love recommendations. I recently finished a book by the American writer, Luanne Rice and found it to be so beautifully written and hard to put down. I can't believe I can't remember the title but have just looked at her website and found she has written over 50 books, many about the same family.