Up next in my review of books I’ve read this autumn are a few books that were a bit of a mixed bag (see Autumn Reading Round-Up, part 1. for the first lot). In writing these thoughts down though I find I still enjoy engaging with the books I have read and hope to get back into full reviews once more in the near future and develop some of my responses to them a bit more. For now, these sparse words will have to do…
Conversations in Sicily by Elio Vittorini
I started reading this book on a flight to Rome, where I was heading to start off a mini-road trip up towards Bologna, as it felt like the perfect time to read some Italian fiction. It seems at first to be a simple story, of a man returning home to visit his mother in a small town in Sicily and having conversations with the people he meets along the way. It soon becomes clear that everything is a little mixed up, as times and places and people interchange, and events re-occur in similar but slightly varied ways. There is a big serving of Magical Realism towards the end as the protagonist Silvestro becomes increasingly drunk, and many references to Vittorini’s theory of things being ‘twice real’ – existing simultaneously in the moment they occur and in a person’s memory or perception. It is one of those wonderful subtle novels which are so powerful, hidden under the radar of censorship but still saying so much about the times they’re written in.
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
This book was another shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year. Set in Zimbabwe, it is the story of a young girl called Darling living in a shanty called Paradise. The first part of We Need New Names follows Darling running around Paradise and its environs with a band of friends, who have their own code of games and language that feels really fresh. The first part is brilliant, the voices of the children, the way they speak and how they see life opens your eyes. In the second part of the novel, Darling moves to Detroit, Michigan (or ‘Destroyedmichygen’ to her friends), and lives with the culture shock between the life she has left behind and her new life in America. However in the second part, the magic of the prose, the life in it, seems to disappear. There’s no doubt that this novel has something to say, but it felt like it got a little bit lost.
The book did bring to mind a really enlightening TED Talk I watched by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (author of Half of a Yellow Sun which I have been meaning to read for quite some time now!) on ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ in which she discusses how she finds that African authors struggle to find their authentic cultural voice, being so influenced not only by other cultures which infiltrate theirs, but the views of Africa that prevail, those of poverty, famine, drought and AIDs. I found this interesting to recall while reading We Need New Names as the book featured so many of these things but in the end seemed weighed down by western culture and ideas.
Anywhere’s Better Than Here by Zöe Venditozzi
I think this book came under my radar after it was shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize, in fact, I think it won the public vote (although the final accolade went to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life). At its centre is the slightly aimless, 20-something Laurie who is bored with working in a call centre and living with her unemployed and unambitious boyfriend Ed whose greatest achievement in a day seems to be sticking a washing on. Laurie’s world is pretty bleak and she isn’t her own best friend, vacillating over decisions and embarking on a love affair of sorts with the emotionally-absent ex-army man Gerry. I thought the voice of the characters, and in Laurie in particular, were very clear, and felt a lot more like real life than some of the voices in fiction, but then perhaps it’s more real to me as it’s set in Scotland. Disappointingly though, I felt the story didn’t go anywhere particulary, and the plot took a bit of a turn for the weird about half way through and became pretty predictable. Saying that, I do think Venditozzi is a name to watch out for – hopefully her next book will build on the knack for character and world-building she has and serve a more hooking plot to go along with it.
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
This is one of the first successful novels that really takes on the Iraq war and the after effects on soldiers who have fought in it, struggling to deal with everything they have witnessed. The book, despite its difficult subject, is beautiful at times, and brutal, full of vivid imagery which are just snapshots of the sights these men at war have seen. It follows the story of one soldier, Bartle, who is trying to come to terms with the death of his fellow soldier and friend Murphy, and the guilt he feels at not being able to keep the promise he made to Murphy’s mother to keep him safe. It’s a tragic story, and from the beginning you know it’s a pointless exercise as the soldiers continually attempt to gain ground and that for many of them, there is no way to cheat death. It’s a book filled with poignant moments, especially the imagery of the title, when Murphy recalls his grandfather bringing canaries out of the mines, opening the doors to set them free and the birds fluttering about in confusion and coming back to rest by the cages. This has been lauded as a classic of war writing to stand alongside the likes of All Quiet On the Western Front. I thought this book was really affecting and look forward to seeing what Powers comes up with next.
A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde by Kevin MacNeil
I bought this book as I read MacNeil’s début novel The Stornoway Way several years ago now and thought it was just brilliant and I loved the way it was written. I also had the luck of seeing Kevin MacNeil perform with William Campbell this summer (they combine guitar with poetry – their song Local Man Ruins Everything was particularly good) at Jura Unbound, a series of nights of free events in the Spiegeltent at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. This reminded me of his other book so I picked it up a the Festival bookshop. The book started off really well and brought back memories of MacNeil’s unique way of writing with equal warmth and wit. The story involves actor Robert whose life starts to take some strange turns when he crashes his bike en route to rehearsals for a production of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (the classic story by Robert Louis Stevenson on a man with a split personality). The book is enjoyable and a pretty farcical, and I really enjoyed the send ups of actors, writers and directors. There is a serious side to it as well, as an exploration of bipolar disorder and the effect it has on a person’s life and those around him or her. I preferred The Stornoway Way but would recommend this to fan’s of MacNeil’s writing, and found it good fun company to while away a few hours with.
On a related note, today is Robert Louis Stevenson Day! There’s always loads going on across Edinburgh and the Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust have lots of info and materials on their website to go along with RLSDay2013.
I’ve got some more audio round-ups and full reviews coming soon, it will feel nice to be back on it again. Right now, I’m about 100 pages into Wilkie Collins’ classic ghost story The Woman in White which I’ve been meaning to read for ages. It’s just starting to get creepy… What are you reading this autumn?