Monday, 31 January 2011

Some good things I've read this month

I thought I'd blog about some of my favourite reads of this month.

1. A Heart So White, by Javier Marías
A very good book, very well crafted, intelligent and humane. It starts with a woman just back from honeymoon who leaves the lunch table, goes into the bathroom, and carefully shoots herself in the heart. It's told from the point of view of the son of the widower from his next marriage, who finds out about these events not long after getting married himself. I've had this on my Amazon wishlist for ages, but was put off a bit because of the immense length of his sentences, which goes to show that Amazon's Look Inside feature is not always helpful. But I quickly got used to the style, and I think now I will read everything else he has ever written.

2. Hint Fiction: an Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer, ed. Robert Swartwood
Some of these ultra-short stories are very good indeed. They should be the captions to paintings. Here's "Shipwrecked" by Bob Thurber:
After we buried the captain, we salvaged the Victrola. It worked, though the mahogany was ruined. Half of us put on dresses. And we danced.

3. Lady into Fox and A Man in the Zoo, by David Garnett
Two novellas. In the first a man's wife suddenly turns into a fox. He's quite upset about it. Apparently David Garnett was with his wife, Ray, in a woodland one day trying to see some fox cubs, and he said that it was no use, that the only way they would see any foxes was if she turned into a fox suddenly, and that this wouldn't surprise him. So she said he should write it. She was an illustrator, and made excellent woodcuts to go with it. Nonetheless he dedicated it to his lover Duncan Grant -- oh those Bloomsburyites. The second story is about a man who moves into a zoo after an argument with his fiancee. It's very good stuff.

4. Moo, by Jane Smiley
A brilliant book set in a mid-western university. It has a huge university-wide cast and short chapters, and is shrewd and funny. A lot of it has to do with grant applications and research funding, but it is far more interesting than that sounds. It's one of those rare books which I enjoyed so much I found myself stopping reading just to feel good that I had so much of it left. (I felt the same about Wolf Hall and The Children's Book.) I love Jane Smiley.

5. The File on H, by Ismail Kadare
I should probably read more Eastern European stuff. This is a novel based on the trip that Alfred B. Lord and his friend Parry made to Yugoslavia in the 1930s to record oral transmission in the wild in the hope that it would shed light on Homer. We looked at this when I was undergraduate because oral vs written transmission is a big deal in Old English literature. This novel moves the events across the mountains to the author's native Albania, where the visitors are suspected of being spies. It's very funny and clever.


  1. With apologies for being a bit Amazon recommendations, do you know 'A Perfect Day for Bananafish' by Salinger? The setup of 'A Heart So White' sounds very similar, but it obviously tells the rest of the story, while you have to infer the rest from Salinger's other work, which I think perhaps gives it a mystique it doesn't fully deserve.
    Dave Eggers' Short Short Stories are also 'hint fiction' and very good.
    I've just finished The Children's Book and found it excellent but deeply sad, all that angst over life and love buried in the Flanders mud.

  2. I always love to have book recommendations, especially from actual people rather than amazon. It was one of my students who recommended Javier Marias to me ages ago. I haven't ever read any Salinger at all, even Catcher in the Rye -- I'll put him on my list.

    I read Egger's Short Short Stories when they were serialised (in the Guardian I think) and I thought they were great. Eggers is mildly annoying for obvious reasons but he can really write.

  3. Personally I would recommend 'Franny and Zooey' as a starting point, from which it should be easy to gauge whether you have an appetite for more.

    I had no idea there was a novel about 'The' Parry; that sounds brilliant, I will look it up.

  4. I'll try Franny and Zooey -- it will probably be a while before I get round to it. I tend to mull over book recommendations for ages.

    I don't know enough about Parry to know how seriously Kadare modelled his novel on Parry and Lord, rather than just taking their story as a starting point. The translator's note at the end of my Harvill edition says that Kadare had a five-minute conversation with Lord in Ankara in 1979, but couldn't talk to him for too long for political reasons. It's a great book though.