Recent reads: DNF

As I mentioned in my June monthly round-up, I have abandoned a few recent reads despite getting the best part of halfway through them. I don’t actually think they’re bad books, so I thought it still worth writing a few words about them.

cairoCairo: My City, Our Revolution
by Ahdaf Soueif

I loved Soueif’s first novel The Map of Love and I enjoy her journalism on the Guardian, so I was excited to read this, her account of the Egyptian revolution of 2011. She combines adrenaline-filled, first-hand, written-at-the-time stories of Cairo mid-revolution with calmer, more reflective chapters written eight-plus months later. It’s a passionate, well-written book but I had to put it down because it was making me sad. The enthusiastic excitement of Soueif, her family and friends mid-revolution is suddenly brutally tempered by the reality of months later, where Egypt is in a fragile state still and statistics have been gathered about the number of revolutionaries who died. I will come back to this when I am emotionally ready for it.

Published 2012 by Bloomsbury Publishing.

Source: Christmas present from one of my parents.

Continue reading “Recent reads: DNF”

Don’t be so tough early in the morning

To Have and Have Not
by Ernest Hemingway

I have been slowly working my way through a box set of Hemingway. At times completely brilliant, at others it was overblown, racist and inconsistent in style. I can see why it divides people.

The main character is Harry Morgan, a poor man who lives in the Florida Keys with his wife and daughters and, at the start of the book, makes a living in Cuba taking tourists out sea fishing in his boat. But with the depression starting to bite, a rich tourist doesn’t pay a large bill and Harry is forced to accept one of the more questionable business deals he repeatedly gets offered, marking the beginning of his slow decline into crime.

The structure is a little odd, switching between points of view, introducing detailed minor characters who sometimes have a role in the main story but often don’t. The tone and style is initially a lot like Raymond Chandler and it retains a touch of that throughout, though it does get both more real and more political.

“You know how it is there early in the morning in Havana with the bums still asleep against the walls of the buildings, before even the ice wagons come by with ice for the bars?…
‘Listen,’ I told him. ‘Don’t be so tough early in the morning. I’m sure you’ve cut plenty people’s throats. I haven’t even had my coffee yet.’
‘So you’re sure I’ve cut people’s throats?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘And I don’t give a damn. Can’t you do business without getting angry?’ “

There are some nasty characters in this book and Harry certainly isn’t blameless in his descent. He makes some bad choices, but he also has bad luck thrust upon him. The switches in point of view can be very revealing. For instance, Harry is genuinely in love and lust with his wife still but when another character describes her it’s a very unflattering picture that is painted, with a total lack of understanding for how the Morgans’ relationship might work.

Which is a theme, actually – assumptions about other people being proved wrong when the narrative switches to their perspective. There are some surprisingly modern touches, such as the smug misogynist painted as a fool. But Harry’s racism certainly isn’t modern. I can’t remember the last time I read the n*** word so many times in one sitting and it bothered me, but it wasn’t just casual terminology. Harry talks about various coloured people in demeaning stereotypes, painting them as less than human, and no amount of historical leniency can make me okay with that.

Hemingway does show some real knowledge of boating and fishing, with detailed descriptions of bringing a boat in to harbour or chasing down a marlin. Neither is my thing at all but even those sections kept me engrossed, which suggests they were written pretty well.

I’ll continue reading through my Hemingway box set but so far The Old Man and the Sea is still the high point for me.

First published 1937 by Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Source: Secondhand, I think from a book swap.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

Lonely reflections

The Snows of Kilimanjaro and other stories
by Ernest Hemingway

This set of short stories starts with the sad and beautiful ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, a brilliant piece of writing, but for me the rest of the collection didn’t live up to its beginnings. This was a real shame after I recently read and enjoyed The Old Man and the Sea and looked forward to delving into more of Hemingway’s work.

‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ is about Harry and his lover Helen, camped out near Kilimanjaro, waiting for Harry to either die or be rescued after his leg had been badly injured. Harry passes in and out of consciousness, tries to hide his pain from Helen and tries to help her to accept that he’s going to die. He is also cruel to her, making it clear that the best part of his life had passed before he met her, picking fights and refusing to say that he loves her. It’s a painfully evocative bit of writing, intense and yet strangely peaceful.

The other stories were more varied in terms of whether they touched me. They are brief snapshots rather than whole stories, with some recurring characters, especially a man called Nick. The format is always the same: lonely man gets on with life, always an outcast in some way, often because of war. The introduction to each story is a seemingly unrelated snippet, generally much more violent than the main story. The themes of these are war and bullfighting.

The general mood is contemplative. The moments of action are brief flickers between longer scenes of loneliness, restlessness, thoughtfulness. Descriptions are very evocative and detailed. However, sometimes the lack of action or passion is just plain tedious.

The stories work together inasmuch as Harry, hero of ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, frequently lapses into reminisces about his life – adventures he’s had, moments that stand out – and the rest of the stories could almost be more of his reminisces, if only the heroes were all called Harry.

Overall, though, after the first story I struggled to remain interested and am now a little put off reading the rest of my Hemingway boxset.

First published in Great Britain in The Fifth Column and The First Forty-Nine by Jonathan Cape, 1939.

Teach a man to fish

The Old Man and the Sea
by Ernest Hemingway

I don’t need to tell anyone what a great book this is, I’m sure. It’s actually the first Hemingway I’ve read and was a great introduction. The prose is plain yet full of endless layers of meaning.

On one level this was a tough book for me to read. You see, I have this thing about fish: a profound dislike, repulsion even. So the story of a fisherman necessarily included details that frankly reviled me.

It was also slow to grab me (relatively; I mean, the whole book’s barely 100 pages long). Even though I knew from reputation that it’s a very simple story, I couldn’t help feeling, ‘Is this really it? Is there no more to it?’ But once the old man goes out to sea that feeling passed and I was captivated.

Hemingway’s ability to voice the old man’s every thought and emotion is astounding. This is a poor man, living a tough life that is nearing its end and his thoughts do meander to religion, death, the meaning of life and the beauty of nature, but always in just the right tone, staying clear of anything touchy feely or intellectual. The old man is very matter of fact and quickly snaps himself out of flights of fancy or memory trips. Only one incident from his past is described in any detail and this is because the old man draws on the memory to give him strength.

I was a little concerned that I wouldn’t get this book, or wouldn’t agree with the millions who rate it as one of the greatest novels ever written. I needn’t have worried and will definitely read more from my Hemingway boxset in the future.

First published in 1952. Specifically cited when Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

See also: review by Marie of Little Interpretations.