November 20, 2011

Recent Reading

In my last post, I promised another one soon about some of what I have been reading. Here it is.

I’ve had a Henry James jag, reading four of his twenty or so novels. Portrait of A Lady was my first read and my favourite. Isabel, its protagonist, wants to be an independent, free-thinking woman and to be good, by her own lights, which means authentic and real. Of course this is doomed in the long term. But how interesting for a protagonist of that time (pre WWI) in a book by a man to be so concerned with her own identity. This carries into The Wings of the Dove, about another independent, rich woman, this one ill.

The protagonist in The Ambassadors is male, though concerns with authentic identity, and an authorial focus on introspection rather than plot, remain. There is plenty of plot in all these books, but it is almost secondary to the characters’ thoughts about themselves, their motivations and their relationships. The same applies to The Spoils of Poynton, the fourth book of my James-jag. Of course, he is much studied and discussed in sophisticated ways I don’t even touch on here, and he writes beautiful sentences.

I think Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is a worthy winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize.
It’s a novel that deals with the complexities of memory, and how we reinvent and reinterpret our past actions. It’s beautifully written. I hadn’t read any Julian Barnes before and now I will.

Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie was also short-listed for the Man Booker. It’s a good read, but harrowing in the gruesome details of harpoon-whaling and a long lost-at-sea stretch . Jaffy, in whose voice the story is told, is on the whaling ship as one of a small group of men seeking exotic animals for wealthy collectors in England at the time.

Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table is set largely at sea, and is written from the point of view of a young person, but those are the only similarities with Jamrach.
Three unaccompanied boys meet by being sat on a passenger ship’s most lowly dining table on a voyage from (then) Ceylon to England. The story is told by Michael, looking back. There are flashes forward to his later life, but the action of the story takes place on the ship. Great writing, great characterisations, great insights from the point of view of the young Michael.

My son lent me The Watchmen, a (mostly) graphic novel (is that the right word?) written by Alan Moorhead, with visuals by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, first published by DC comics in 1986. This is satire at its best.
I had to concentrate hard to follow what was going on, but it was worth the effort. Graphic novels require a different kind of reading from straight text. I’m not sure what exactly that difference is, and have never read anything about it, but suspect it’s got something to do with paying as much attention to the images, and how they are arranged, as to the words.

I picked up Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind because I so admire her novels. Absence of Mind consists of four essays in which she argues, more elegantly than I can say it, that “mind” (introspection, belief, self-consciousness and so on) is more than “brain”. It’s a dense and fascinating read. She argues for “…the odd privilege of existence as a coherent self, the ability to speak the word ‘I’ and mean by it a richly individual history of experience, perception and though.”
There is, she says, a human mind and consciousness that is more than can be described by closer and closer descriptions of the human brain. This is a fascinating book that I will read again.

Over the summer, I plan to read David Foster Wallace.

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