Archive for the ‘Contemporary’ Category

Maarten ‘t Hart – A Flight Of Curlews

Monday, June 29th, 2015

I have to admit I don’t read many novels in my native language, Dutch, but of course I used to do so mainly before I had depleted my local library and moved on to works that were not translated yet. I do still have some Dutch books on my shelves that have been lying there for me to pick them up one day. One of those is A Flight Of Curlews (1978) by Maarten ‘t Hart, one of the few of his novels that have been translated into English.

It is not a long or overly complex novel except for psychological nature of the plot. An accidental encounter causes turmoil to the stabile internal life of a man, bringing back many memories during the days that follow. The memories at first look seemingly random. Gradually they start to paint a deep profile of the main protagonist from his early childhood to more recent events.

The main protagonist is not an ordinary man. Though highly intelligent he copes with many sociological failures and a number of tics. He is a typical autistic nerd that have become very familiar today but as this novel was written in the seventies such a stereotype did not exist yet. Perhaps at the time it came out it might have looked to be about a rather disturbing person.

The author writes a very easy prose and his writing is fairly simple but very vivid, which makes it enjoyable and accessible. The story is very focused as it is narrated from only one viewpoint. The great problem however is the lack of a good plot. A large part, perhaps at least a third of the novel consists of flashbacks. These do not last very long and the story returns to the main plot but this does not last longer than the flashback until another one follows. This overload of flashbacks, while interesting, does hamper the main plot a lot which sees very little progress until about halfway the story. To me it was a relief that the flashbacks stopped and the actual story continued. Peculiarly enough the majority of the plot revolves about a different series of events than much of the first half seems to develop towards. It leads to a somewhat disappointed ending although with regard to the flashbacks the reader understands the main protagonist well enough that it was not unlikely to have turned out this way. One could say it is a realistic result. Things like this happen in real life as well.

There is much to like about A Flight Of Curlews. It is well written and the main protagonist can be seen as interesting as we explore his being and how he interacts with other people. The overload of flashbacks and the lack of a good plot damage it enough for it not to be a entirely satisfactory read. The novel is considered to be one of his most popular and best works but I don’t regret that I have not picked it up earlier.

Michael Chabon – Telegraph Avenue

Monday, December 1st, 2014

In literature there a different ways to approach the presentation of your novel. One can choose content over style. A message is to be conveyed to the reader and the style has to support this as effectively as possible. An other option is to let style be the driving force. The content is thus set up in such a way that it supports and strengthens the style and allows it to be used to its strongest effect. In the latter case the difficulty lies in finding the right balance. The style should not dominate the story but take it to a higher level.

In Telegraph Avenue (2012) by Michael Chabon goes all the way with the second approach. It takes place about 10 years ago but its content covers more than 50 years of popular culture. And not just a bit. The novel is a continuous barrage of cultural references. Almost every sentence counts. It is impossible to avoid. It is almost overwhelming and most impressive is that Chabon never goes over the top. All he puts in every sentence matters to the atmosphere and the scenes within the story, describing them within the reference frame of the narrator’s point of view. They live by these. They have grown up with these cultural phenomena and Chabon makes them very much part of it.

It is indeed style over content. It is so powerful that while reading your brain is hit with so many impressions and associations that I had trouble keeping up. I simply had to take many breaks and eventually I decided to read the novel more slowly by taking it along on my daily commute back and forth from work so that I could not read it for more than 10 to 15 minutes at once. It was the only way I could read it in a good way.

So effectively Chabon did not keep the balance as mentioned before. The style was too dominating. With so many extensive references every scene got expanded to large clouds of refined prose. Eventually this started to hamper the story. Chabon normally manages to create strong plots in which you can connect well with the characters. He has always had an excellent style that supported the story without it being to much there. That is not the case with Telegraph Avenue. Once you take away the style the plot lacks sufficient substance. It drives on several storylines which only have a limited extent. Chabon does not go as deep as usually and this affected the impact of the story, which in my opinion is the core of any novel. You can do much with style but without balance it will not reach its mark.

Telegraph Avenue is not just about style and popular culture references. Chabon creates several wonderful pairings with his characters. There are six main points of view although only two of them from the more dominant main protagonists. Each of these six are connected to several of the others in different ways. Chabon uses this to great effect and develops their relationships in a powerful way. The novels contains a large cast and many of the side characters are fleshed out in their own unique ways. Chabon creates a wide palet of the diversity of American society. While others prefer to use more average characters, Chabon goes for the slightly odd ones. They feel very familiar and none feel out of place.

Chabon also hits on many different themes. Different from his usual fare is that the Jewish element is pretty much absent. Telegraph Avenue is mostly about African American culture and he shows there is much variety to be found there as well. There are so many smaller and greater themes that it almost seems hard to give them sufficient attention but Chabon manages it all well.

Telegraph Avenue is an incredibly rich novel, a tour de force by an author who has already made his mark and who continuous to write in an easy going way, providing humorous and dramatic moments within the same scene although it never goes dark or overboard. The only point where it failed for me that the style dominated over the story. I did not connect much with it and unlike previous novels it took me longer to finish the novel. With the others it was harder to put them down. The story, while deeply layered and rich with details, could not make as much impact on me as other novels that were driven by the story and in which style stayed in the shadows. Because of this I rate Telegraph Avenue among my least favorite Chabon novels. The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union outshine it easily. I have to admit here that I like his work a lot so being low on the list is still quite above the average contemporary novel. I still recommend this novel because in many ways it is an impressive work of literature.

A travel kit

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

Whenever I go on a trip one of the first things that are put on my things-to-not-forget list are books. I don’t have a car so all long-distance traveling I do is by public transport. This means I have plenty of time on my hands to do something. In most cases I read. If the trip takes some time longer I need more books, although that depends on the activities I might be doing. I don’t know beforehand, but my motto is that carrying more is always better than carrying less as this might result in the risk having nothing to do or being forced to buy something rubbish instead to read.

Finding some good books for travel is not easy. Usually they are not the books on top of my wanted list and often leftovers. Books by authors I have read before I considered readable enough without me getting absorbed too much that I spent more time reading than planned. This year I obtained a pretty nice stash, all by authors of which I have a positive opinion. The first is a contemporary novel, for a change, by Michael Chabon. He is one of the few contemporary authors whose work I have always enjoyed, so I am quite content to read Telegraph Avenue (2012). The other author is Richard Morgan. The books that I have read were both fantasy novels. The pair of novels I have picked up now are both science fiction. That is pretty different fare and it is guesswork if it will be to my liking and possibly it has a very different style and approach.  The first is Altered Carbon (2002) and the second Broken Angels (2003). At least I have a full travel kit now and should not have to worry lacking having something to spend my travel time on.

 

Tim Lott – The Seymour Tapes

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

If I would describe The Seymour Tapes (2005) by Tim Lott it would be a contemporary fiction novel on the making of a non-fiction novel in which the reader gets all the essentials of non-fiction novel and much more. Just this unusual setup makes this novel a fascinating read. Lott presents his novel as a documentary with himself in the role of the writer. Instead of getting the actual documentary, the reader gets it in a different format. Like in a making-of he decides what we read and when we do so. This of course to get the right effect, but also to create variation between the so-called documentary parts and the making-of parts. With this he keeps control over the perspective of the reader. You don’t know more than what he is giving away. As the novel progresses this allows for twists and surprises even as some things that are to come are disclosed during the story. Even so these disclosures allow the reader to pay more attention to scenes to come, so I would call it quite an effective method, for a change.

The unique structure is not without its flaws. Certain developments, especially those outside of the documentary, are a bit too much made convenient for the plot. The balance between the two setting is precarious. Is the reader been given wrong impressions or is it just for effect? The hiding of information is one of the reasons why I finished the novel not wholly satisfied.

Speaking of satisfaction: The events of the documentary are rather to the contrary as they depict tragic and disturbing events. Most striking is that Lott presents his characters absolutely natural and very recognizable. Their motives and peculiarities are nowhere that strange or far from real life. As a whole the characterization is one of the very strong elements of this novel. Lott keeps things simple and down to earth. The events could happen anywhere. They will give the reader plenty to think about. It certainly had been a while since I read a psychological novel that hit my own feelings at some levels and that questions one’s behavior that many people these days have become quite familiar with.

The Seymour Tapes is a stunning novel, very accessible and recognizable with a unique structure that will keep the reader hooked while the content is actually somewhat creepy. It is not a perfect novel, but impressive enough as it will be able to hit some marks in the years to come. Especially in these times it has timeless elements, even though it contains very contemporary elements. Recommended.

 

James P. Othmer – The Futurist

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

The Futurist (2006) by James P. Othmer tells about an activity that I did not know one could make a successful full time job of. The Futurist, despite its title, is very much a contemporary novel while each chapter contains a summary of past details of the main character’s life. It is actually quite contemporary because it sets actions, settings and behavior within the specific timeframe the story takes place. Only six years old, certain aspects already feel outdated, although one could argue it depicts the vibe and character of the time it is set in so that decades from now the reader will have a good picture of those times.

The narrative of the story follows the titular futurist, which provides a nice focus, as the reader mainly knows what he does, although Othmer does give away some slips now and then to heighten the tension and anticipation of the reader. The main character is a peculiar person who had led an unusual life. It’s rather impossible to identify with him, so the only thing the reader can do is enjoy the quirks and enjoy the exploration of the main character’s life. One could draw an analogy with Forrest Gump, although the futurist is rather an opposite. So he is amusing while also somewhat sad.

The plot itself develops quickly as the main character encounters a wide range of characters and strange situations. The situations provide memorable scenes which echo the style of Tarantino and co. where the conversations are a-typical and the expected scenes develop differently then what you might expect. These scenes are certainly funny and quite entertaining. Although I was not laughing, I found myself grinning often.

The story revolves around the futurist undergoing a change and the question if this is a greater change or not. Othmer adds in a few thriller elements to spicy it up and put some real pressure on the main character. In between Othmer adds in a greater message for the reader. To me that message was of lesser interest as I have read similar messages before. Other readers might be enlightened by the insights he provides.

The Futurist is quite entertaining and a quick read. I enjoyed it much and would not have minded it lasting longer. It is fairly well balanced and easily accessible as there are many ways to view the story. Recommended.

 

Kazuo Ishiguro – Never Let Me Go

Monday, September 12th, 2011

I don’t pick up many recent novels from the contemporary modern literature section and even then there is often something odd about the work. I also usually stick to authors I like, for example Michael Chabon and Umberto Eco. I don’t know why I don’t do so more often. I know there is plenty of interesting stuff around. Anyways, to cut to the chase, I picked up Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro partially it has been adapted to a movie this year which provided some publicity that I noticed as it was mentioned that it contained some speculative fiction (a different word for science fiction in the sense that the story is not aiming for science fiction but using minor elements for the purpose of the plot; the definition of course leaves certain space to breathe). Just on a hunch I decided to try it.

First off I can state that the speculative fiction part is right and that the novel in essence is a romantic drama to which have been added some peculiarities. These were probably added by the author to give the novel some more weight and depth as the romantic drama is nothing out of the ordinary if it weren’t for the speculative elements.

The story is told from a first person perspective in which the narrator is recalling her life with the two companions who form the main characters of the story. Ishiguro tells the story in a first draft style. The narrator regularly infuses flashbacks to explain what she is talking about, thinking the background should be well explained. This creates a patchy structure which dominates in the beginning and slowly becomes less as the story turns into a more linear development. It is a nice concept to write the story like this, as if the narrator is recalling events for the first time, maybe even dictating them to a recorder. The downside of this concept is that it makes an uneasy read as the story never seems really to get started. You feel like you are just reading a collection of random flashbacks. The persistent reader will eventually get to a more regular story development.

The story itself, and the speculative element of it, is actually nowhere that original. I recall a movie from that same year telling a story in a similar concept, with a difference. In my afterthoughts on the book I confirmed my feeling that the speculative element was only used a tool with far too limited incorporation of the implications of the concept. I felt, and still do, that there were some weird situations created that didn’t make sense. The movie took the implications more into account to make it acceptable, but the book does not. The pretty much apathetic approach of the characters and other people felt just wrong and this is the greatest flaw of the book. Ishiguro managed to write the story in a conceptually well constructed and balanced way, but only as long as you don’t start thinking outside the boundaries of the framework.

It is this framework which, although it works well, made me decide the author could have written a far more powerful story if he had not only stuck to the romance but also reached out to the environment and society in which it takes place.

A different and minor flaw is the lack of dialogue in the book. The narrator is, especially in the first half, mainly telling about events and only sparsely putting in some dialogue. To me dialogue gives the characters their character and created a greater dynamic and drama to the story. This was certainly proven in last part of the story when the dialogue started carrying the story, giving it the impact which would make the reader think positively about the book. But this would only be because of the last part.

With the lack of sufficient dialogue I never got a good feeling for the two other main characters (with a first person narrator one at least gets plenty there). They remained as the narrator tells us about them, leaving little space for our own interpretation. Only a few of the side characters get some attention while most remain rather two-dimensional.

For its concept and construction this is a well written romantic novel, but with a somewhat wasted potential, certainly when the speculative fiction used is far from original, I’ve seen and read similar things before. Thus, the author could have used it in a different way, although that would have required changing the concept and construction. Overall it is a fine read but to me a bit overrated. Nevertheless it does not surprise me it would have done well within the niche it aims for.

Keeping on track

Monday, May 30th, 2011

I’ve been a bit lacking on keeping this blog up to date lately. Not that I haven’t been reading, but it has partially been non-fiction, which I usually don’t incorporate for this blog, except for certain classic or old material. I did manage to expand my collection a bit more with two purchases: Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro, of which has been made a movie, which I haven’t seen, but I wanted to try the book first as the concept interested me, and The Fortress In The Eye Of Time (1995) by C.J. Cherryh. I’ve seen books by Cherryh in second hand book stores for quite time, but they were mainly Science Fiction of a type that did not draw my interest. This book however is Fantasy and did make me decide to pick it up to see if I like it. It’s the first book of a series, so hopefully it will make me want to read more.

In the meanwhile I’ve picked up The Island Of The Day Before (1994) by Umberto Eco. I already mentioned it in a recent post, but it hasn’t caught on to me that much yet, so I’m slowly but steadily progressing. Eco’s works are not always that easy to get into but usually you do catch on.

Queen’s Day bargains

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

The 30th of April is in the Netherlands a national holiday in which people are allowed to take part in a free-market where they can sell all their “junk”. I make use of the event to browse around all that junk to look for some cheap books, as a fair number of items for sale are second hand books. I usually manage to pick up a few and this year that was also the case with two fiction and one non-fiction book. I don’t mention my non-fiction purchases here as they are usually bought for my own interests and I prefer to focus on fiction books as non-fiction usually tries to inform, not to entertain.

The two fiction books are Insomnia (1994) by Stephen King and The Island Of The Day Before (1994) by Umberto Eco. In general I don’t like horror much, but the distinction is not always that clear. I picked up Amnesia because it is strongly related to the Dark Tower cycle, which is the case for other books he wrote during the 90′s. I have read several other books by Umberto Eco, his Foucault’s Pendulum being one of my all-time favorites. Although his books are very erudite, the stories are not always that strong. I had somewhat forgotten about The Island Of The Day Before so when I saw it at the free-market in good quality I decided to pick it up as I hadn’t read it yet.