The serious side of fluff

Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination
by Helen Fielding

This is a bit of a mishmash of a novel, combining hapless heroine, chicklit, rollicking adventure and post-9/11 paranoia. It doesn’t entirely work.

Olivia Joules is a freelance journalist with an awful lot in common with Fielding’s more famous creation, Bridget Jones – she’s man-obsessed, convinced she’s made for greater things than the job she’s doing and gives her imagination free rein without applying common sense – but Joules has a darker past and, when pushed, turns out to be a lot more capable. By the end of the book she’s a strong heroine but it takes her a while to get there.

The story is far-fetched and heavily influenced by 9/11. Possibly too much so. Joules is sent to Miami to cover an inane story for the Sunday Times’ Style magazine where she meets a man she’s convinced is up to no good on a global scale, with her usual ability to add 2 and 2 and make 7. However, this time there are an awful lot of coincidences that appear to suggest that her hunch was right.

Fielding’s style is very readable and Joules is likeable enough, but she still has too much Bridget Jones in her to be an interesting original creation. She makes lists. She jumps to conclusions from people’s initial appearances. It’s like Fielding started creating a much more interesting, strong character, but then held back. And threw in an awful lot of prejudiced nonsense to boot. Racially, mostly (I can’t explain that without giving away spoilers but if you read it you’ll see what I mean), but also against geeks/techies. In addition, she seems to be trying to write satirically and failing.

There’s a lot about this story that’s hard to believe, and I suppose to enjoy it you need to switch off from thinking that way, but I just couldn’t. I freely admit that I loved Bridget Jones’ Diary when I read it back in 1996, but I was a lot younger then and I think my tastes have changed somewhat.

Published 2003 by Picador.

UPDATE: See also this review by Judith of Leeswammes.

Talking books

Hunger
by Knut Hamsun
translated from Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad

A few months back I went along to a new book group at a local pub. I only found out about it a few days beforehand and didn’t even know which book they were discussing, so that was an odd start to the evening but it was a great night. I met some new people, found out more about my adopted city and talked a lot about books. The chosen book turned out to be Hunger, which was already on my TBR, and the discussion about it inspired me to dig it out and give it a try.

The unnamed narrator of Hunger (except for when he gives himself pseudonyms) is a young, struggling writer, battling with his pride and the difficulties of getting paid to write, with the result that he is often starving or even homeless. The lack of food and warmth plays with his mind and the story delves into a dark psychology that to me seemed far more advanced than its publication date of 1890.

The writing is brilliant, and draws you on even when the narrator is incomprehensible or the storyline particularly dark, both of which happen often. There are dozens or more moments that stand out as somehow key – sleeping out in the forest one night (which struck him as a romantic idea and a potential source of food but turned out to be cold, wet and a long walk from the city); trying to sell the buttons from his overcoat to a pawnbroker; turning down a food coupon because he has told the police he is a rich man who lost his key, though it seems that surely they see through that lie and the writer hasn’t eaten in so long…

I completely agree with the member of the book group who said that she often wanted to scream at the narrator, he’s so frustrating. Although his pride does wear down eventually, for a lot of the book it gets in the way of him getting money or food. I did sympathise to a certain point. He seems to find it funny to tell lies to random strangers, including policeman, which is sometimes entertaining but other times costs him dearly.

I also think that the narrator probably has serious psychological issues that may have preceded the starvation. He has extreme highs and lows, achieving euphoria in his hunger or his writing but also stark depression. It’s a pretty extreme experience being described and it affected me deeply that the high moments were such small, simple things like a sunny day or decent night’s sleep. Interestingly, I don’t think eating was ever described as particularly pleasurable. In fact, he often vomits because the rare food he gets he eats too quickly, or it’s too rich.

One thing we discussed at the book group was the question of translation. This book is old enough that it has been translated into English multiple times. There were three or four versions round the table. This could mean that members of our group had very different experiences from each other. I wonder if all those who liked it most read the same version?

Thanks Hombre Mediocre for the book choice and for starting the group. I look forward to our January meeting.

First published in Norway in 1890.
This translation first published by Canongate Books in 1996.

New year, new books

Happy new year!

I now have a lot of new books, except I only physically have half of them so the photo doesn’t look as impressive as it might do. Stupid rubbish postal service. Not that I read fast enough to get through these before the end of the month.

So these are the books I received for Christmas…

Stack of books

An Image of Africa by Chinua Achebe
Silly Novels by Lady Novelists by George Eliot
And Now You Can Go by Vendela Vida
Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years by Sue Townsend
Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns
The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver
The Breaking Point and other stories by Daphne du Maurier

…and if anything I have less reading time than last year, so this should be an interesting exercise in time management. Please don’t judge me if it takes months for my reviews of these titles to appear!

Another year is over

We’re off up north to celebrate the new year and then have a hectic first week of January looming so I doubt I’ll get much time for reading or blogging. I won’t do a full review of 2010 here but the one question I’ve seen a few bloggers answer that I find endlessly interesting is: what did you do/experience for the first time this year? So, in no particular order:

1. Started a blog. Obviously. You’re reading it. I’m enjoying it so far. I have interacted with some very lovely people, met people in real life through it, flexed my writing muscles and read more because of it.

2. Went to Manchester. At least I don’t think I’d ever been there before February. Not that I remember. I think I like it. And it has some very nice people.

3. Grew courgettes. With a little help from Tim and our allotment buddy Swish, I planted half a dozen seeds and we grew so many courgettes we had to give some away! And we can eat a lot of courgette in this house. Total success.

4. Exhibited a photograph in an exhibition. One that was curated and had a preview night with wine and nibbles and everything. It was really cool to be a part of.

5. Got asked to be someone’s bridesmaid. The wedding itself is next year but just being asked was incredibly exciting for me because I was honestly starting to think I’d never get to be a bridesmaid. (The bride’s my sister, by the way, so I was already pretty darned excited about this wedding.)

6. Made a tau neutrino from felt. As you do. Summer fun work thing. I was quite pleased with my handiwork actually. It’s on my desk at work. (Except actually it’s not, it’s in a crate, because I packed up my desk last week ready to start my new job at a new desk in the new year. It’s a lot of new all at once. Exciting and scary and another reason I may be too busy to blog much for a while.)

7. Volunteered at an astronomy fair. I spotted a notice asking for volunteers to man a physics fun stand at a fair in Devon and in a moment of crazy I offered my services and Tim’s. Science outreach is hugely important but I’m not the most outgoing person so I may not do that to myself again.

8. Employed a builder to work on my very own house. Or rather, our very own house. We knew we’d have to get work done when we bought this place and it’s very satisfying to have got a big chunk of it done. We still need to do some decorating before I post any photos. Which leads me on to…

9. Painted a ceiling. Which is very tiring, it turns out. Thankfully I had help from Tim and my Dad. In fact they did more than me. But I did do some of it, honest.

10. Watched It’s a Wonderful Life. I know. How could I possibly have gone almost 30 years without watching the epitome of Christmas films? I finally sat down in front of it on Christmas Day and it has immediately won top place in my favourite Christmas films list. Unsurprisingly.

I could probably cheat and add a whole bunch of blogging-related firsts, because it’s all been new to me this year! And a few more owning a house firsts as well. But that would get boring pretty quickly. So instead, feel free to tell me your 2010 firsts in the comments, I hope you have had a good year, and all the best for 2011.

Christmas sledging fun

The snow stuck around just long enough for us to replace our traditional Christmas Day walk with sledging up at the local park. It’s the same park my siblings and I sledged in as children so it was a real memory lane moment to be up there with a variety of sleds, my Dad throwing himself enthusiastically down every slope while I took it a little easier. The light was falling so I didn’t get many photos, but here are a few to show the great fun we had.

Practice run on a gentle slope:
On your marks

Tim following my Dad’s cue by going headfirst:
Whoosh

Kitty the dog didn’t get that sledging and fetch are a tad incompatible:

Holly the dog was content to just dig around in the snow:
Digging

Happy holidays!

A bit of festive cheer

Comfort and Joy
by India Knight

Some people might classify this as chicklit, not my usual genre, but as Dervla would say this time of year, this is no ordinary chicklit; this is chicklit that absolutely completely struck a chord with me. Plus, it’s Christmassy.

Clara is 40 and is scrambling around Oxford Street on 23 December to complete the perfect Christmas she has planned for her 16 guests, including her three children, husband and ex-husband. The book follows her through the ensuing mayhem of family, friends and Christmas.

Knight mercilessly mocks the middle-class boreishness. I mean, these people are London middle class, which is a whole separate sub-class of its own. They obsess over the provenance of their food (in fact, food in general) and PTA meetings and how to give their children everything without spoiling them. Clara herself is painfully aware that these are not issues most of the world has the luxury of worrying about and besides, she finds it boring. What happened to those youthful days of discussing politics?

There are some painfully real moments and Clara can be a little vicious in her own mind, but she loves the people around her and this shines through. Her sisters are particularly wonderful characters and their shared history and language are joyous to be part of.

I laughed out loud many a time but I also appreciated the main “lesson” that Clara learns – that your true family is the one that’s there for you, the people who “taught me to swim, and everything that that’s shorthand for” as she puts it. Broken marriages and jumbled extended families may be nothing new but I suspect there’s still a lot of people out there trying to negotiate the tricky waters of which parents, step-parents, half-brothers and ex-step-granddads they keep in touch with. It’s always nice to know that someone else is struggling with the same issue.

Knight has got right into the Christmas tradition by writing about Christmas past, present and future. I loved that touch, though the future Christmas was rather less bleak than Dickens’. If you’re not one for making a fuss about Christmas, this may not be the book for you. But I loved it. I stayed up far too late into the night to finish it and then felt a little sad that it was over so soon.

Merry Christmas and happy holiday reading!

Published 2010 by Penguin.

Slow-burning intrigue

The Mysteries
by Robert McGill

I had just been thinking that it was a while since I last read a murder mystery, and then I randomly selected this from my TBR. It’s a debut novel that the publisher describes as being akin to David Lynch’s films, which caught my attention.

There are a lot of characters in this dissection of small-town life in Ontario and one of the novel’s strengths is that I was interested in every one, finding them believable, complex and full of contradiction. Which is exactly what you need for a good mystery.

The town of Mooney’s Dump changed its name to Sunshine shortly after attractive young mother and dentist Alice Pederson disappeared two years ago, but a new name can’t take away the dark unease of the townspeople. Alice was last seen at a party at the local wildlife park, a party most of the town attended. Now remains have been found and a man has been arrested for Alice’s murder. But is it her body and her murderer? And what’s with these sightings of a tiger prowling loose?

In addition to the usual small-town intrigues of who’s sleeping with who and who used to date who, there’s the man who’s not been quite right since his parents died in a car crash, conflicts with the local First Nations reserve and gossip bordering on prejudice about a gay couple and a mixed-race marriage.

The timeline skipped around a lot, with it not always being clear when events happened, so that most of the relevant details to unravelling the mystery had been revealed before the final chapters pulled it all together by clarifying the order of events.

I was thoroughly drawn into the story and devoured the bulk of the book in one sitting. But I did have some issues with it. I know it’s an old method for thriller writers to try to mislead the reader with red herrings, throwing in extra suspicious characters and events, but there were moments reading this when I was annoyed by how a plot thread turned out.

What I didn’t notice until after I’d finished reading was that McGill appears to have made himself a character, adding a postmodern meta aspect to his storytelling. At least I think that’s what he’s done. Anyone else who’s read this know what I’m talking about? No? Just me then.

Published 2004 by Jonathan Cape.

One from my desk drawer

For Esmé – with Love and Squalor and other stories
by J D Salinger

I have been dipping in and out of this short story collection for a long long time, which means that I can really only say anything useful about the second half. But I’m reasonably sure I liked all of it, if that helps.

Anyone who’s read Catcher in the Rye will recognise the dry, not-one-of-the-crowd narrative voice of all these stories. Quite a few are also young male narrators, adding weight to the comparison but also to the possibility that a little of Salinger’s own life is being told here. The title story hints at this most strongly. It’s a letter to a woman on her wedding day, apologising for not being able to attend and detailing how they met (presumably for the benefit of wedding guests who might have this note read out to them?). It’s a simple, touching story of an American GI dining alone in a British cafe and being approached by a young girl who asks if she can write to him. The GI is quiet, bordering on non-communicative, possibly already struggling with the stress of war. The girl is precocious and demanding. But the pairing works brilliantly and the conversation is both believable and interesting.

Most of the stories are like this, inasmuch as they’re snapshots of ordinary lives and the not-so-ordinary personalities who are stuck living them. A couple have clear story arcs but most are more snatched, seeming to fade in and then fade out of the scene or situation being described.

First published in the USA as Nine Stories by Little, Brown and Company 1953
Published (in edited form) in Great Britain under the present title by Hamish Hamilton 1953
This edition, reproducing the original American text, published by Penguin 1994

Triumph and tragedy

T-Minus: the Race to the Moon
by Jim Ottaviani (author), Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon (artwork)

I think this comic book is strictly aimed at children but that didn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying it and learning all sorts of new facts about the space race. And I live with Tim and have been to Kennedy Space Center, so I consider myself reasonably well versed in this stuff.

The story begins in 1957 with the text “T-minus 12 years” and ends (except for a short postscript) in 1969 at “T-minus zero”, the moment when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. The story inbetween shows both the Russian and the American teams of scientists, engineers and pilots, not to mention the politicians who had their own ideas about going into space. There’s more detail about the Americans, possibly because much more information about them is available to an American author, and not every question I had was answered, but overall this was an impressive and entertaining summary of historical events.

Most of the missions get their own panel with a list of pertinent details: rocket used, launch date, flight duration, etc. Deaths and other disasters were not lingered on, which I actually found a little difficult, but there were enough of them to make it clear how immensely daring the astronauts and cosmonauts were. These men and women (the first woman in space was Russian Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 – I didn’t know that before today) really were braving the unknown, human guinea pigs essentially. Early flights went up before having figured out urine disposal or temperature control. There’s a scene where cosmonauts discuss not taking much food on a 2-day flight because the smell in the capsule made them feel too queasy to eat.

There are a couple of jumps back in time to show the development of the science behind space travel, though I’m sure another book this long could have been written/drawn on that subject. The story is reverent without painting everyone involved as perfect. NASA engineer Caldwell C Johnson is picked out as being a workaholic who rarely saw his family, lost track of days of the week and didn’t stop to celebrate each victory on the way because he was already immersed in the next challenge (or indeed the one after that). Russians are shown mocking American failures and achievements, not to mention covering up the cause of Laika’s death and keeping many other details secret. Interestingly, the book does mention that the American and Russian teams met up every so often to discuss their work and that these meetings were friendly affairs, but no detail is given. I don’t know if this is because it’s all classified or if there were no details important enough to pick out for this abbreviated history.

The full-page bibliography reveals that most of the authors’ sources came from NASA, including mission transcripts, but they also spoke to astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Alan Bean. They also say that they didn’t read one particular book they found because it was only available in Russian, which sounds like a bit of a rubbish excuse when researching Russian history. Surely they could have found a Russian speaker to help out? However, they did do a lot of research (they provide a web address for the full list, described as a stack of books “more than ten feet tall”) and it shows.

I heartily recommend this to any adult or child interested in the space race, but I would also be interested in learning more about the Russian side of things.

Published 2009 by Simon & Schuster. Available from GT Labs.