‘Underworld’ by Don DeLillo

I wanted so much to like this novel, because it was given to me at a special time (see ‘A Literary Wedding‘) and it looked like a special book.

Hopeful anticipation is always in danger of disappointment. I want to consider carefully why it didn’t really live up to my expectations.

It begins with a prologue, set at an epic baseball game in the 1950s. Characters include Frank Sinatra, J. Edgar Hoover, a radio commentator and a boy playing truant to attend.

Next setting is an art installation in the middle of nowhere, at which redundant aircraft are being painted by volunteers. We meet Nick Shay and start to discover his life; it appears he might be the first-person protagonist of the novel. Themes from the baseball game start to reappear, and I feel I’m getting a grip on it, just. Then Mr de Lillo drops in a chapter where every paragraph is a different part of Nick’s life, and I start to find it wearying.

We encounter the civil rights movement, student protest, nuclear bombs and the Cold War, comedian Lenny Bruce, the baseball from the epic game, The Highway Killer, another possible murder, Jesuits, adultery, chess and a miraculous apparition. Among others. Viewpoints, settings and chronology vary wildly.

It’s a book of epic length, 827 pages in the paperback edition, and soon I started making notes. I’ve done this with Dickens and Tolstoy, to keep track of the characters. With ‘Underworld’ I did it to keep track of the plot.

There is some beautiful writing in it: “They’re all back there in the railroad rooms at the narrow end of the night.” The speech of Italian/ Americans is evocatively written. There are some superb set-piece descriptions, for example of the enormous art intstallation of painted aircraft.

UnderworldI am very aware that I’m not a literary reader; I am primarily plot-driven. I can’t grasp the overall narrative arc (or do I mean plot?) of the story. Is it centred on nuclear warfare? The baseball? A murder? A life- Nick’s? I’ve briefly looked at reviews, which seem universally good, and have seen the novel described as “cinematic”; but this is clearly not plot-driven mainstream cinema. I searched in my mental cultural database for a suitable comparison, and could only come up with the Beatles track ‘Revolution Number 9’, which has a similar repetition of themes, only perhaps without the closer ties of the narrative themes in ‘Underworld’. I am however reminded of other variations of chronological narrative structure, such as ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell as well as books by Martin Amis and Sebastian Faulks. I can’t at the moment think of any that are particularly satisfying. (William Gibson tends to write in trios of chapters, each centered on a particular protagonist, but brings them all together eventually; and there are of course flashbacks in all sorts of novels. I am not familiar with more experiment work; I am not going to attempt James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. As I have remarked before, I am over reading books because I think they will be good for me.)

In the end, I just wanted to get to the end, which is not to say I didn’t enjoy the book.

Oh, and it’s too big, at least for a paperback. It makes my wrist ache. This is a good reason for Kindles.

‘Racing Through the Dark: The fall and rise of David Millar’ by David Millar

David Millar will be known, to anybody who has followed the Tour de France on ITV4, as a commentator, with a rather lovely voice and a very informed and clear outlook. Anybody who knows little about cycling will perhaps never have heard of him.

He was formerly a top professional cyclist, who achieved some notoriety additionally to his cycling fame when he was exposed as a doper. This book is, as the title says, the story of his fall and subsequent rise. It’s rather good, so much so that it has just earned an Oblique re-read.

DSCN6799Apart from beginning with some forward glimpses, the structure is pretty much chronological, to my pleasure; I have read too much recently which tries to be clever by dodging around in time and ends up being confusing. It’s very good on David Millar’s early life: born in Malta, raised in Britain and Hong Kong by his divorced parents. I found the everyday details of his early life as a professional cyclist absorbing, as with the subsequent account of his rise to success. It is written “in collaboration” with Jeremy Whittle, but reads very much as Millar’s own voice.

Gradually, one realises the pressures on him to start doping; how he is never going to achieve the success he craves and deserves if he doesn’t give up his intention to stay clean and ‘prepare’ for the key races. He is very good on the conspiracy of silence which stops people disclosing the real secrets of drug use. This is what kept Lance Armstrong’s image so clean for so long. (At the time of publication of this book, in 2011, the Armstrong scandal had still not broken.)

Millar tells the story of his fall matter of factly, explaining his motivation without making excuses. He doesn’t flinch from the details of injecting and taking precautions not to be found out. What is remarkable is how he recovered: he has since taken a very firm anti-doping stance, and had some success when he resumed his career. This is the ‘rise’ of the title.

It’s difficult to know how people who are not keen on cycling would take to this book. I think it’s a great human story, as well as a sporting one, told with humour and I believe honesty. Recommended.

(David Millar has published another book about life as a professional cyclist subsequent to this one, which I have not read. Both were in the bookshop I visited today.)

Novel Thoughts

It is said that everybody has at least novel in them. Mind you, I’m not sure who says it. And, come to think of it, I’m not sure what it really means. (And I’m sorry for starting a sentence with “and”. It just came out like that.)

In one sense, everybody has the story of their lives to tell. Fictionalising your life or taking aspects of it to use in fiction; well, that’s another story.

I know of at least three people who are writing novels. One of them is apparently writing a novella, so he can publish ahead of his friend. A novella, according to the nearest dictionary, not the internet, is a short narrative story. Before you scoff, presumably ‘Heart of Darkness’ and ‘A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ are novellas. Enough said.

I know at least one more who has a plan, this time for a series of children’s novels. I will not rant about ‘celebrities’ who think they can write children’s books. I am very sure the person I have in mind will make a superb job- she’s a teacher. Which is not to say that all teachers can write good novels.

Of course, writing and publishing are not necessarily the same thing, but I feel there are some remarkable novels that have never been published. However, the authors are probably not starving in the traditional garret.

Novel thoughtsMore than 30 years ago I wrote a 100,000 word novel which is best left unread. It was a pre-marriage project, written last thing at night. At least I was a disciplined writer. Last year I started to put bits of it on a WordPress blog (see obliquefictions). However it’s so poor that I have lost interest. It’s the story of…. gasp, a teacher! Who is frustrated but can’t get a boyfriend! No, not a girlfriend- I had what I thought at the time was the brilliant idea of writing it from the point of view of a woman. Hindsight makes me see it was a tiresome idea. It only proved that I had little insight into a woman’s point of view. The novel also proved that I had little idea about sex, for obvious reasons.

I started on this post after realising that so many people have wonderful stories to tell from their lives. I seem to have had more time to listen after finishing teaching. That’s nothing to do with teachers not listening, just to do with being busy.

I’ve met a man who was separated from his twin at birth, and fostered; he has only just learnt he also had another brother. Another gentleman worked for a small industrial firm whose owners turned out to be gangsters. A lady I was talking to recently saw a West Indian immigrant in the 1950’s, immediately resolved to marry him and did so, defiant of the prejudices of the time (from both sides of the relationship). They are still happily married. Others have spent their entire lives looking after their severely disabled children, now adults. Just this morning I was hugely entertained by stories of adolescence in- let’s say Tyneside. Motorcyle misadventures (how many teenagers can you get on a bike?) featured largely. I wish I’d had a recorder or a notebook.

Perhaps they are, after all, best left unfictionalised. Should they tell their stories? It would be lovely to think they could be shared. I am astonished how many people quite happily tell of affairs they or their partners have had. Maybe we have a compulsion to tell stories of our lives, even if we don’t write them down. Perhaps, having clarified my thinking in the course of my writing, as so often, I should stop there.

A Literary Wedding

DSCN6753Briefly- We went to a lovely wedding the other day, where there was something of a literary theme: hearts on the table punched out from a copy of Pride and Prejudice, paper bouquets made from books and magazines, themed course names, and so on.

 

 

DSCN6752I particularly liked being asked to choose a present for myself: a book from a selection made by the bride and groom. The idea provoked discussion and pleasure. I know it has motivated some guests to read, or to read something new. I chose ‘Underworld’ by Don de Lillo, as the groom particularly recommended it. Looks like a cue for a blog review. Eventually; it’s huge. Thank you, Michael and Christy-Anne

Reading in Public

Now that I have more leisure time, I have started to notice what people are reading in public. Just for my own amusement, but hopefully yours, I am sharing my observations with you.

This all started when I saw somebody who I stereotyped as a businesswoman reading Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a world without work, by Nick Srineck and Alex Williams, which is apparently a “major new manifesto for a high-tech future free from work”. To which I will only say: oh yeah? For all the starving or impoverished billions of the world? Or just the privileged few? No, I haven’t read it, and am not inspired to do so.

Persuasion (Jane Austen) This was being read by the kind of lady you would expect to be reading Jane Austen; although a surprisingly wide range of people like her work. An old hardback copy. It does inspire me to want to reread Austen, a pleasure that never fails.

Azol Agol This is a cautionary tale, perhaps. We were in Boston Tea Party, Honiton; the youngish man at the table was reading a book. Mindful of my intention to write this blog, I was peering to see what the title was, and realised this looked incredibly creepy, so stopped. It was something like Azol Agol, but I can’t find this anywhere! I can find books with Azul (I think this is “blue” in Portugese), but not the exact title. Have I misread it? I know it was recommended by New Statesman. It remains A Mystery.

Kindle Here, of course, is Another Mystery. There is no way of knowing what someone is reading on a Kindle. Of course, you could guess, from the gasps of surprise or horror, the tears, or perhaps the heavy breathing: apparently this is a good way to disguise an interest in pornography (sorry, erotic literature). Fifty Shades of Grey is allegedly a favourite; no, I haven’t read it; yes, I have peeked into it; yes, it does really look like rubbish. Come to think of it, I see a lot of Kindle reading, by all ages, and I am sure this is more for convenience than from a desire to hide titles from prying bloggers.

(According to Mrs O. it is common to see Japanese commuters reading the most violent and sexual manga comics and books on their journey to and from work.)

On a lighter note,  I was delighted to see two young children having breakfast before school in the Waitrose café, reading with apparent pleasure and apparently uncoerced. Their books were J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and that timeless classic, Digger to the Rescue (author unknown) (see footnote). Interestingly, there is at least one edition of the Harry Potter books that was published in “serious” covers for adults. A couple of weeks later, I saw the family again and had the courage to tell the mum that as a retired teacher it did my heart good to see children reading, not playing on their phones. “Oh, you wouldn’t want to teach this one,” she smiled. “He reads all the time, even when the teacher is talking.” I rather think this might be a Good Thing. Depends on the teacher.

Another recent sighting was a table of four people with a copy of The Ups and Downs of Cruising. Before you get any peculiar ideas about the subject matter, it turns out to be a rather light-hearted book by Bryan Shelley about…. taking a cruise. Not “walking or driving about a locality in seach of a sexual partner” (Wikipedia). What a relief. This is Hampshire, after all.

Trains are another good source of reading matter observations: newspapers, manuals and magazines as well as books of course. The Kindle is popular. However, last week I saw Miracle Cure by Harlan Coben, which I think is some sort of medical thriller, and A Piano in the Pyrenees, which is a “light hearted travel book” by Tony Hawks. Older readers will remember ‘A Year In Provence’, another book in which an Englishman moves to France. I assume that this is similar, full of gentle misunderstandings and affection. I may be wrong and I have too much to read to confirm or deny this. I speculate that these books may be indicative of a desire to escape from the mundane reality of commuting. I only spotted the author’s name on another train book: Phillip Kerr, who I have found writes crime novels set in wartime and post-war Berlin, with detective ‘Bernie Gunther’. More escapism?

I suppose I should mention The Tent, the Bucket and Me by Emma Kennedy and The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend. These could recently be spotted being read by the Obliques while waiting for daughter #3. I have blogged about the latter (‘The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend’ by Katarina   Bivald). The former is apparently a very amusing read about camping. We’ve been there….

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Footnote: ‘Digger to the Rescue” is part of a series by Mandy Archer and Martha Lightfoot. Putting jokes aside, they look great for young readers.

‘The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend’ by Katarina Bivald

I picked this up from a charity stall. The basic premise: Sara, from Sweden, visits a little town in America called Broken Wheel, and sets up a bookshop. Well, you can see why it appealed.

It is apparently a New York Times bestseller and is translated from the original Swedish.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend

Some time ago I decided only to read books written in English, but occasionally make an exception. I was happy to do so for this book, as I suppose it is best described as charming.

Sara is meant to be visiting Amy, who she has only ever corresponded with. Amy dies; Sara is left without a purpose to her visit. The town take care of her and she responds with the bookshop, thereby gently changing lives.

It is not primarily about the transformative power of books, although that does come into it. It’s more about people and everyday sorrows and kindnesses. Love of course plays its part, without overwhelming the rest of the plot. Characters are sympathetically drawn.

I suppose some might describe this as chick-lit, although I’m never quite sure what that means and wouldn’t see it as a derogatory term. My only slight reservation is that my edition is a ‘Richard and Judy Book Club’ edition and has ‘Richard and Judy Book Club’ Questions for Discussion. Yes, I could easily ignore that. I wouldn’t mind being in a Book Club, anyway.

To sum up; a gentle, pleasant read. Probably good for holidays. Or just for pleasure.

 

Of Sigils and Quidditch, or Lord Voldemort meets the White Walkers

To my surprise, I find myself admitting that, on the whole, the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling are a Good Thing. They have enthused and excited a whole generation of readers. Many of those readers have been motivated to read at a level of complexity and difficulty far beyond what they would otherwise attempted. As far as I know, this is still going on.

There are drawbacks. Some children were daunted by them and thus given a further negative outlook on reading. I know that some parents pushed their children to read the books, because they felt it was a Good Thing, and that this had a very negative effect. There is a fine line between encouragement and pressure. However, I also know that some parents read the books to or with their children- a Very Good Thing. (Miss O. #1 says that my reading ‘The Hobbit’ to her was her gateway drug to reading. Nothing makes me prouder.)

(Probably some of the original Harry Potter generation are reading the books to their own children. I just hope this doesn’t lead to the Roald Dahl problem; at one point he was being read and promoted to the exclusion of new authors.)

I read ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ when the series was starting to achieve a popularity beyond its initial cult following (but before the films). I enjoyed it, although I thought I detected echoes of ‘The Worst Witch’. I have read the lot and have one major reservation: they are too long.

It’s probably heresy to say this, but I believe that Ms. Rowling needed a good editor. The first book was comparatively tautly written. I got increasingly bored with the series. Particularly I wish there was nothing about Quidditch, or at least much less; and I wish there were no references to snogging. They are tiresome. Quibbles aside, I would love to have an abridged version of the whole thing. Don’t get me wrong; there are some moving and exciting episodes. Probably the very things I find uninspiring are the things young readers love. Butterbeer, anybody? Anyway, who am I to quarrel with such a success?

The title of the book in the picture may surprise British readers- presumably this is the American version.

Harry Potter Continue reading