Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge 2008: The Complete Works

An Introduction to Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge 2008

Yes, well, I know it’s halfway through February already, but these things take time, especially when you’re a full-time professional, part-time barfly and technological luddite with a burgeoning Facebook addiction.

Welcome to Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge 2008. Not to be confused with a book group. I’m already in one of those – an all-gal collective, going on three years strong, known as The Skanky Whiskey-Slammin’ Crack Ho’s, but that’s another story for another day (or maybe for another blog).

 This is how it came about. Andy and I were drinking in a bar one afternoon last December – as is our wont – and discussing, amongst other things, books we’d been reading, and authors we liked, and how there were so many tomes and so little time. Anyways, after about my fourth champers and Andy’s sixth pint, we hit upon the idea of a Reading Challenge. The capitals are deliberate. A book a month for a year.

This is how we chose the titles. We devised a short list of 24 titles – 12 apiece – then whittled it back through mutual consensus to 12 books, six choices each. Our criteria was the list had to include at least two pan-Asian authors, one female, one Australian, one South American, one non-fiction, and one poetry or prose or play. Obviously there could be some crossover. But neither of us could have read the book previously, although we could have read other works by the same writer. Then we devised a simple numerical formula to match the books to the month they were to be read.

 Here’s the list

 JANUARY: An Equal Music by Vikram Seth (Netty)

FEBRUARY: Unweaving The Rainbow by Richard Dawkins (Andy)

MARCH: Due Preparations For The Plague by Janette Turner Hospital (Netty)

APRIL: Feast Of The Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa (Andy)

MAY: Memories Of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Netty)

JUNE: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (Andy)

JULY: Equus by Peter Shaffer (Andy)

AUGUST: The Dark Prince by Iris Murdoch (Andy)

SEPTEMBER: The Crying Of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon (Netty)

OCTOBER: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (Netty)

NOVEMBER: Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh (Andy)

DECEMBER: Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth (Netty)

 Obviously, with it being February an’ all, we’ve already knocked over the Seth book. But that’s another post for another day. I mean, c’mon. Rome wasn’t built in a day …

An Equal Music – What Andy Says

 OK, now listen up. I’m writing this after roughly a bottle of sauv blanc (and bloody good sauv blanc it was/is too). So if it seems a tad pretentious and overblown… Oh, fucked if I know.

Vikram Seth is a sublime writer. For the first three quarters of this novel he (mostly) reels off sentence after sentence of the most beautifully readable fiction you could hope to find. His dialogue is utterly believable, his inner monolgue (vital to this story and so difficult to successfully achieve) is compelling and his ability to draw his readers into situations they do not entirely understand – because his narrator does not understand them – is masterful. And, while this is far from a funny story, he manages many light, humorous touches with surprising panache.

Seth’s story is multilayered. There is Michael’s string quartet, and their performances, the discovery of a previously unknown Beethoven quintet and the debate about how it should be played, the challenge to perform Bach’s Art of the Fugue as a string quartet for a recording. Tying into this is Michael’s violin, his love for it, its history, the threat that it might be taken from him. And there is his family – through whose friends he acquired his violin – his dead, barely remembered mother, his father swiftly approaching dotage, the casual and ultimately futile destruction of the sites of Michael’s childhood. And soaring above these strands is his love for Julia, the woman he loved once and abandoned, whom he has never forgotten, and a sighting of whom leads him – hilariously – to lose a vinyl recording of that never-before-heard-of Beethoven quintet.

 I said earlier that for the first three quarters of the novel Seth mostly reels off his beautifully constructed sentences with seemingly effortless ease. Or something like that. But there is more going on here than the mere construction of pretty paragraphs. The scenes (within the novel’s first hundred or so pages) in which Michael first sees Julia in another bus, rushes around desperately searching for her and ultimately loses a piece of recorded music that only minutes earlier was his most valued (if very recently acquired) possession is quite tragic. But it is (despite Michael’s tears) deeply, deeply funny. I guffawed out loud when I read it. And I suspect this is intentional. That dichotomy, situated as it is very early in the narrative, is indicative of what is going to happen later on.

Because Michael is not a well boy. There are hints of this earlier – indeed, his passionate obsession with a married woman whom he himself hurt so badly so many years ago might just be a wee hint of emotional imbalance – but it first comes crashing to the fore in the Vienna concert scene. From that point on Seth’s sublime writing is, if not completely abandoned, then complemented by a far more emotionally complex, far more difficult narrative voice. In the last quarter or so of the book there are passages that demand to be reread because they are so dense that a single reading can give barely a hint of what is being portrayed. Netty thinks these passages are a major weakness in the book; I won’t call them a strength, but I think they cleverly explore an unbalanced mind being blown apart by love – and the realisation that love will, beyond a shadow of a doubt, be denied him.

Much is made of the detail of classical music in this story. I don’t know much about classical music, but I know a bit. I happen to have a copy of Bach’s Art of the Fugue on CD (Harmonia Mundi). I listened to it after I read the book. It’s a bit crap (and that’s from someone who quite likes his classical music). But I doubt a love or even an appreciation of classical music is needed to enjoy this novel. Yes, its final pages are rather more demanding than you might have expected, but that does not detract from one of the English language’s finest pieces of late 20th-century fiction.

 Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s sauv blanc to be drunk. Or should that be sav blanc. Can never quite figure these things out. Oh, hang on, I’m supposed to drink pints, aren’t I…?


By Isabelle Bénillan on Sun, 12 Oct 2008 05:39:00 GMT
Oh! what a pleasure to read this commentary… Thank you. I am a rebellous French guide who is still refusing to read the Da Vinci Code -and therefore, losing tours in Paris. But I will not change; and I prefer to think of Sylvia Beach and her book store in Paris than “that” in the Louvre! And my daughters, too, will read “The Little Prince” first. Grechka: you are not alone -I know some japanese people just like us. Isn’t that magic? Andy M: cheers, I’m having a rosé (what did you expect of a woman?) while discovering Vikram Seth…

By grechka on Thu, 21 Feb 2008 15:45:42 GMT
this is not a comment on Seth (sorry) but I had to write something about your article in the MX about the Dymocks Booklovers Top 101. it was so refreshing and bold that I had to scan it and send it to some of my friends! I mean, you are the first person I have ever encountered (in Australia) who had the audacity to say that Tolkien was not a great writer (Oh My God!) and that he “wasn’t even particularly good” (did you receive any death threats yet?). And I have to sign under your slogan which to me (call me crazy) has that wonderful John Lennon tone to it. Here I go: “I too am PROUD not to have read Dan Brown. I will never, ever read Dan Brown!” I refuse to fall into the madness of buying books just because everyone else on the train is reading one. I refuse to declare Harry Potter as a masterpiece and I hope that my son gets to read “The Little Prince” first. But what struck me as strange is that you, as a literary critic, find this phenomenon strange. I stopped finding it strange many years ago. The concept of real literature is slowly disappearing from people’s minds and like I said to my friends in the e-mail with your article attached – it’s tragic. 


And what I think of it …

By Netty W on Wed, 20 Feb 2008 15:05:00 GMT

Conicidentally (or not, actually) my entry is also being written after a bottle of sauv blanc. And a bottle of champers. And a couple of glasses more. Except on the other side of it – after the crap night’s sleep, the several visits to the bathroom, the hangover, the recriminations (OMG why did I drink so much, go to that bar, send those texts, etc etc). 

An Equal Music was one of my choices, and was put on the list because it’s one of my friend Nicole’s favourite books ever and she rhapsodises about it. Plus I’ve never read any Vikram Seth before, and let’s face it, it’s a helluva lot shorter than A Suitable Boy. I read it in dribs and drabs over a three-week period where my head was firmly in the Australian Open tennis tournament for most of that, which was not ideal. It’s a book that should, and deserves to be, read over three or four sittings very close together.

Yes, it’s a piece of “literature”, but it’s very, very readable and flows beautifully – for the most. Plot-wise it’s basically the story of Michael, who loved and lost and found love again with his amour de fou Julia (both characters speak German, but I don’t know any. Maybe Andy can translate that). Michael’s obsession with Julia, told in memory and flashback until he sees her again on a London bus, had me tearing through the pages desperate to find out why it had all gone to hell. When I did – and no plot spoilers here – to say I was disappointed is an understatement. Well, no wonder she refused to see you again and take your calls, you spineless, self-centred narcisstic little twerp.

 That, inherently, is my problem with the book – that I didn’t like Michael, I didn’t empathise with him. Now you don’t have to necessarily like the characters to enjoy a book – at the moment I’m reading The Trout Opera by Matt Condon, and of the dozen or so major characters, maybe I like two of them, but I am loving the book. It’s hinted at early doors that Michael is maybe a couple of sausages short of a barbie, and after his breakdown during the Austrian concert, which occurs about two-thirds in, from there the book, for mine, lost its seamless tone. Passages started to become unwieldly; I wasn’t sure if what was being portrayed was only happening in Michael’s head; I had to read and reread, and even then I wasn’t sure, and as a reader I was starting to get annoyed.

 It was the supporting cast whom I really liked – Piers, Helen and Billy, the other members of the string quartet in which Michael played; Mrs Formby, who instills a love for classical music in Michael and permanently loans him her Tononi violin; Michael’s dottering father and aunt Joan; Virginie, the feisty French girl Michael is seeing before his reunion with Julia. Even Julia, to whom I never warmed, but who has a perfectly written and executed plot arc maintained throughout the book (you’ll gasp at her major twist!) I really enjoyed the supporting stories, especially the story of the Maggiore Quartet. The only thing I know about classical music comes from the Peanuts comics where Schroeder is sitting at his toy piano banging on about Beethoven, but you don’t need to even have a layman’s knowledge to enjoy the quite in-depth dissections that are central to the book. Or at least I didn’t.

 So to sum up, seven out of 10. And I will probably reread it at some stage.

 Now on to Unweaving The Rainbow by Richard Dawkins. I’ve got 10 days to knock it over. And I haven’t even started it yet. But don’t tell Andy.


By loulou on Thu, 21 Feb 2008 14:28:55 GMT
Good stuff, liked your discussion. Made me want to read it. I, too, have never read Vikram Seth.


Unweaving the Rainbow – What Andy Says

By Andy M on Mon, 17 Mar 2008 16:43:00 GMT

 Only two glasses of sauv (sav?) blanc under my belt this time round. Things might make a little more sense. Although it isn’t even 5pm yet. Of course, on Saturday afternoon, when Netty and I got together to discuss this entry in the reading challenge, rather more than two glasses of wine were imbibed. And then there was that call from a mate, once I’d safely ensconced myself on a tram home, a call that naturally enough resulted in me getting off said tram, catching a taxi into Collngwood and getting more monumentally shitfaced than I’ve been in… in… Ahhhh, a journalist’s life for me.

 I’m a longterm fan of Richard Dawkins. I first read The Selfish Gene about a decade ago and have since read a couple of his other books, most recently (apart from Rainbow, of course) The God Delusion, which was far and away, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the best thing I read in 2006. Yer, all right all right, I’ve got a bit of a bee in my bonnet about god, OK? The psychopathic fucker doesn’t even deserve a capital letter, far as I’m concerned. [INSERT LIGHTNING BOLT HERE]

 But I’m afraid this book – one of my choices, and one I was looking forward to – was a bit of a disappointment. There are a few reasons for this, but first and foremost because he simply fails in his primary objective, which is to communicate something of what he believes to be the poetic wonder of science. I’ve read quite a bit of science and much of it leaves me gobsmacked with wonder – perhaps even poetic wonder. Dawkins’ own The Blind Watchmaker is a good example. There’s Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate and The Language Instinct, Matt Ridley’s Nature via Nurture and The Origin of Virtue, Simon Singh’s Big Bang (reading which I came as close as I’ve ever been, or as close as I’m ever likely to come, to regretting not studying physics at high school. Didn’t actually regret it, mind – just came close to). Even Paul Davies’ The Mind of God has a darn good stab at it, although it gave me a headache along the way. But here Dawkins doesn’t really hit the mark.

 Dawkins’ background is biology and his speciality, if memory serves, is ethology – the study of animal behaviour and environments. When he’s writing about biology he’s brilliant – even when the science is hard he does whatever he can to make it accessible and, more importantly perhaps, he makes his readers want to understand what he’s banging on about. Chapters three and four of Unweaving the Rainbow are about the science of light and sound and, while Dawkins obviously has a thorough understanding of these subjects, he perhaps lacks the passion that would enable him to communicate them as enthusiastically and as readably as he does when he’s in the territory he loves.

 The middle chapters of the book are better – Dawkins demolishes (yes, Netty, demolishes) astrology, the paranormal, fairies at the end of the garden and various other species of woo-woo. Here he’s much stronger, thoroughly entertaining as well as devastatingly convincing, and preparing ground he was to revisit far more comprehensively in The God Delusion (Unweaving the Rainbow was first published in 1998).  Towards the end of the book he explores certain aspects of genetics, as well as the idea that our minds work as generators of “virtual reality” – a bit of a mindfuck (pardon the pun) since I hadn’t come across it before, although again he’s convincing.

 But Unweaving the Rainbow doesn’t hang together as well as some of his other books, and certainly not as well as some other science books I’ve read. It’s as if he’s come up with a quote from Keats, and an idea about poetry, and then sat down and banged out 300-plus pages. That’s not what he’s done, obviously, but on one reading at least that’s the impression I get.


And what the paranormal-loving science nuffy thinks of it …

By Netty W on Tue, 18 Mar 2008 10:31:00 GMT

 OK, first up the confession – I haven’t finished Unweaving The Rainbow, and for the crappiest of reasons. Simply, I ran out of time. I did not take into account this was not the sort of book I could simply breeze through on the tram on the way to work, or plough through into the wee hours. I admit I was putting off picking it up. When it comes to non-fiction, I pretty much always head to the biography/autobiography section of the bookshop. As for reading a book for science? Uh ….

 There is also no question that science is so NOT my forte – at school I was an arts and languages kinda gal, never did biology, or physics, or chemistry; in fact, did the absolute bare minimum in the science/maths fields. Add to this that I have always had a profound interest in all things occult. So, actually, that makes me the ideal candidate for a book like this. I mean, an author can preach his gospel to the converted as much as he wants – it’s winning over the non-believers that is the biggest challenge.

 I find it interesting that Andy, the science-head of the two of us, is the more lukewarm on this book. Because I am quite enjoying it – probably because it is outside my normal realm, presenting me with facts and theories that are alien to me (pardon the pun, Mr Dawkins). It is stretching my brain in exactly the same way that the study of languages – one of my key interests – does. And the author should be congratulated for making a lot of quite dense material pretty readable for the layman. To use a beachy sort of analogy – because we’re in some kind of heatwave at present – I will never be able to swim in this field, but I now feel that I can wade without fear of being swept out to sea.

 Perhaps the only drawback is that although I now know how a rainbow is constructed, I don’t think it’s going to enhance my viewing of it. Certainly it is interesting, but – for me – it ultimately won’t make that much of a difference. My reading of the barcode chapters, which are heavily interspersed with quotes from various poets’ work, just made me want to go and pull out a volume of Keats, or Yeats, or Coleridge, and curl up on the couch with it for a few hours. You can take the girl out of the country, etc etc …

 Nor has Dawkins won me back from the dark side. I’m not an idiot, nor a creationist – so I understand, grasp and even agree with some of his arguments on this topic. But I LIKE the mystery of the universe; and I have always related to concepts such as fate, destiny and synchonicity. I appreciate being exposed to a different viewpoint, but it ain’t gonna change my stance.

 But you know what? I AM going to finish this book. It just might take me the rest of the year to do so!


Due Preparations for the Plague – What Andy Says

By Andy M on Sat, 05 Apr 2008 16:10:00 GMT

 Netty and I discussed this before embarking on the Reading Challenge, but it hasn’t been an issue previously. However, if you haven’t read this novel and you are not a fan of knowing what happens in something you plan to read – be aware. Spoilers ahead.

 It’s rare, I suspect, to stumble across a well-established writer who leaves a reader, previously unaware of their work, desperate to seek out every last thing they’ve ever written. This didn’t happen to me in this case (sorry for the false build-up). I read Orpheus Lost, Hospital’s most recent novel, last year, and that’s the one that left me hungry for more. Unfortunately my day job largely dictates what I read, even when I’m not in the office, so toddling off to the second-hand bookshop and buying everything Hospital’s ever written wasn’t really an option. So I was very happy to see this turn up on Netty’s selection for Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge 2008.

 Lowell and Samantha are the children of some of the victims of a terrorist attack in 1987, in which all of the passengers on a passenger jet die. Lowell tries to forget and move on and does a really bad job of both. Samantha suspects there’s far, far more to the story than anyone is prepared to acknowledge and wants the truth. When Lowell’s father – a US government secret services operative whose wife died on the plane – dies, he leaves his son a package of documents and video tapes that relate to the hijacking. And then Lowell’s life – never one most of us would aspire to – really goes to shit.

 In tone and theme it’s surprisingly similar to Orpheus Lost, which surprised me a bit as I hadn’t thought of Hospital as an “espionage” writer, even a literary one like Le Carre (who is apparently someone she seeks to emulate, at least when writing books like this). Due Preps (as Netty and I have dubbed it) and Orpheus Lost are firmly grounded in the reality of life in the post-9/11 world – which makes perfect sense as far as Orpheus Lost is concerned, but is weird given that Due Preps was almost entirely written before the attacks in September 2001, and that the action takes place in (September!) 1987 and 2000-2001 (the novel’s last chapter takes is set less than a month before the actual attacks. a fact that I’m profoundly embarrassed to admit didn’t strike me as particularly important, and so I won’t explore. Netty, who picked up on, can do that instead).

 Apparently the only part of the novel Hospital completely revised in the wake of 9/11 is the section in the bunker, where hostages taken from the hijacked plane choose to remove their masks – and, after a few minutes, die – so they can leave a final message for their loved ones (messages most of their loved ones will never actually hear). I didn’t know this before I read the book and I’m glad I didn’t (sorry, but I did give you the spoiler-alert thingie). That section is perhaps the best in the book – sickening, moving, harrowing, rivetting, desperately sad but strangely uplifting, and also utterly convincing.

 There’s actually very little about this novel that isn’t utterly convincing. That Lowell and Samantha are tracked to the motel in which they watch his father’s videos seems a bit far-fetched, as does their fairly effortless escape. Netty found the random nature of the assassinations a bit much; if America’s intelligence agencies can take out X, Y and Z, why shoudl they have a problem with Lowell and Samantha? Netty probably has a point, but as a long-term reader of Noam Chomsky I’m familiar with his depiction of the CIA and associated organisations as possessing an incongruous mix of vicious brutality and moronic incompetence. That these agencies might be topping someone here and there and missing the people who might actually count doesn’t strike me as hugely surprising. ASIO is no doubt exactly the same (I’m waiting for the bullet, boys).

 Due Preps might have its minor shortcomings – might – but they are very minor. It’s disturbing, compulsive, powerful and intellectually stimulating. Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music entranced me but did not leave me thinking I absolutely HAD to read A Suitable Boy. Due Preps, on the other hand, leaves me knowing I’ll have to explore Hospital’s work a whole lot more.


And Netty’s Preparations are (over)due, too …

By Netty W on Mon, 07 Apr 2008 02:04:03 GMT

 It’s September 1987, and Air France flight 64, en route from Paris to New York, has been hijacked by terrorists. After several landings amid negotiations, it lands in Germany, where all children on board are released, then eventually makes its way to Iraq, where the plane is blown up when the terrorists’ demands are not met.

 Fast-forward to 1999, and 19-year-old Samantha Raleigh, who, as a six-year-old, survived the hijacking in which her parents were killed, is on a mission to discover the truth. She contacts Lowell Hawthorne, whose mother also died on the flight, and whose father, a US intelligence agent, is killed in a suspicious car crash and who leaves a package containing documents and video tapes to his son which hold the key to solving the mystery of the doomed flight. And central to the hijacking are two agents, Salamander and Sirocco, who hold the fate of all the other characters in their hands.

 This is the first book I’ve read by Janette Turner Hospital, an Australian author who lives in the US. The blurb bills it as a “political espionage thriller”, which I suppose it is, but I think that sells it short. The word “thriller” makes me think of popularist airport fare – and, trust me, this is NOT a book you want to read on a plane – and it’s so much more than that.

 I was particularly impressed with the way the story unfolded, revealing the characters and then weaving their stories together. The reader discovers the real story behind the flight as the characters do; without giving too much away, there’s not a lot of plot developments here that come as a surprise – I found myself slotting pieces of the jigsaw together as I read, and I’m always the one at the movies whispering, “What’s going on now?” – but that did not detract one iota from my enjoyment of the book. All of the characters – wonderfully flawed individuals who are not always likeable but always invite our empathy – are interconnected. It’s not always believable, but it’s always gripping and imminently readable.

 It’s primarily Samantha and Lowell’s story, but theirs are interwoven with a host of others. I particularly liked the characters Tristan, a French publisher, and Genie, an Australian travel writer. And Lou, Samantha’s aunt, forever haunted by the tragedy that ripped apart her family. 

 It’s a compelling novel, but it’s not always a comfortable read. The descriptions from inside the hijacked flight and its aftermath are some of the most confronting passages I have ever read, right up there with Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho and D.M. Thomas’ The White Hotel – in tone, if not in subject matter.

 In fact, my only real quibbles are the circumstances in which the tapes are finally viewed, which didn’t strike me as particularly plausible, and the ending, which I felt too readily and simplistically tied up the loose ends. But the ending also fascinated me – and could easily set up a sequel – coming as it does at the beginning of September 2001, with the major characters residing in Boston and New York and making plans for flights. As Andy has already told you, this novel was mostly written before 9-11, but wouldn’t it be fascinating to merge fiction with facts and see what else fate has in store for these characters?

 Eight out of ten for me. And that’s good. Really good. I mean, I’m a hard marker.

 Now it’s time to feast on a goat …


The Feast of the Goat – What Andy Says

By Andy M on Sat, 03 May 2008 18:56:00 GMT

 I’ve just finished reading John Connolly’s latest, The Reapers, and some scenes are set in Queens, New York, and at one point some of the characters go to one of the many Indian restaurants in the area and make a point of NOT eating the goat curry. Which is a pity, because I quite like goat curry. That said, on Connolly’s recommendation, if I ever end up in that particular area of New York I will avoid the goat curry.

 Okey dokey, pig in a pokie. That particular piece of weirdness out of the way – The Feast of the Goat. This is the second novel by Mario Vargas Llosa I’ve read, but the other – Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter – I read so long ago, about the time the Keanu Reeves/Barbara Hershey movie came out, that it’s barely worth considering. One thing I do remember is that it was strongly postmodern/metafictive, and I’d assumed  Vargas Llosa was that kind of writer; the Goat proves otherwise. Unless there’s something happening here I’m too dumb to see. Which is entirely possible.

 The Feast of the Goat is a dictator novel, which Wikipedia tells me is a specifically Latin American genre. Vargas Llosa explores the last day in the life of Trujillo, the tyrant that dominated 30 years of the Dominican Republic’s history from the early 1930s on. He was assassinated in 1961. The novel begins in the ’90s and then shifts back to the day of the killing, with perspective jumping from Trujillo himself to the killers and then back to the ’90s. Vargas Llosa sticks to this tight structure for the first three quarters of the novel, after which it breaks down (which is understandable, given that by this time Trujillo is dead and chapters from his perspective might be a tad… dull). Pointless and irrelevant observation: the chapter at which the structure is abandoned, 17 – at which point Trujillo has been killed – begins with the word “When”, and so do the following five. The last two chapters are slightly different. It’d be interesting to know if this is the same in the original Spanish. Probably of no importance, although those chapters deal with the grim, sometimes gut-churning consequences of the assassination. The six chapters basically have a similar arc – “When this happened, then really bad shit went down.”

 The novel is trenchantly anti-dictatorial, even as it explores the truly sickening consequences of ridding a country of someone like Trujillo. Vargas Llosa details the regime’s brutality, its corruption and nepotism, its Big Brother-like surveillance and control of a subjugated population. It’s interesting to realise, then that Vargas Llosa is a fairly hardline neo-liberal and in 1990 ran for president as a conservative candidate in his native Peru. He nearly won, but – interestingly – was ultimately defeated by another neo-liberal, Alberto Fujimori, whose 10-year reign was characterised by authoritarianism, human-rights abuses and corruption. Sound familiar?

 While Trujillo’s reign is monstrous, the man himself is not depicted as a monster – he’s a bit too pathetic for that. He pisses himself, he can’t get a hard-on, he’s neurotic and paranoid and he preens like a fucking pansy (I can say that, I’m gay). He doesn’t even have a particularly good speaking voice. He’s not a monster, he’s a human – but he hasn’t been terribly good at being a human, and as he ages he’s no longer any good at the few (human) things he was OK at (fucking and pissing, for example) when he was younger. By no stretch of the imagination is he a likeable or sympathetic character, but neither is he mythic or inviolable.

 Unlike Due Preparations for the Plague, The Feast of the Goat does not fill me with the desire to read everything Vargas Llosa has ever written – but that’s at least partly because he’s written so much more the Janette Turner Hospital. I am, however, keen to read more of his work – particularly The War at the End of the World. The Goat is a fascinating read, sometimes offensive. sometimes horrifying, occasionally amusing and surprisingly moving.


Feasting on a goat a very satisfactory experience …

By Netty W on Tue, 06 May 2008 23:29:51 GMT

 Think you don’t want to read an historical fiction on 20th century politics in the Dominican Republic? Think again.

 I have to admit I knew nothing – nothing – about the Dominican Republic before I picked up this book, much less about Rafael Trujillo, the dictator who ruled the country for a good 30 years until his assassination in 1961. I dug out a paperback I own called “World Famous Dictators”,  but alas, no joy there – strange, because after finishing “The Feast Of The Goat”, I’m convinced Trujillo is one of the great dicatators of the previous century, a compelling, charismatic brute of a man, his thuggery, narcissism and self-delusion just bubbling under the well-polished veneer.

 “Goat” is divided into three separate strands, weaving fiction into non-fiction. It opens with the (fictional) story of Urania Cabral, the daughter of a former high-ranking member (again fictional) of Trujillo’s cabinet who fell out of favour with the Generalissimo. Urania left the country at the age of 14, only a couple of weeks before Trujillo’s assassination, and has been living in the US ever since, estranged from her family, having eked out a successful career in law. Now in her late 40s, she returns to her homeland on a whim to face her demons, which are revealed throughout the course of the book, culminating in the truth behind her falling out with her father.

 The second strand follows Trujillo over the course of the day before his death, a fascinating, largely internal monologue, which also covers his inner circle, a group of powerful, mostly repulsive, absolutely flawed men – I particularly liked reading about Johnny Abbes Garcia and Henry Chirinos. And finally, there is the half dozen men who will kill Trujillo, sitting in a car on the side of the road lying in ambush. As they wait, their stories and their reasons for wanting the Generalissimo dead are revealed. Of course, the assassins finally achieve their aim, after which both themselves and their country are plunged into a reality even more oppressive and gruesome than previously as the dictator’s family and the loyal Trujullistas set out to avenge his death.

 (NB: When Andy and I got together to discuss the book prior to blogging about it, we touched on the graphic violence in the post-assassination chapters. Andy mentioned one reviewer he had read said the violence tainted the book. I agreed that it was certainly heavy-going, but it hadn’t gripped and horrified me the way the hijacking sections of our previous book “Due Preparations For The Plague” had. But there is no doubt the torture sections are definitely not for the squeamish. And feminists may well blanch at the overt machismo that runs riot throughout.)

 It took me about a third of the way into the book (which runs close to 500 pages) to get used to its style, which shifts back and forth between characters and through time, even within the space of a chapter. I also found it took a while to fully distinguish the characters, of whom there are many and who are introduced by their full names, but subsequently referred to by nicknames and diminutives. For example, Urania will be having a conversation with her aunt, and her internal musings will be occurring concurrently, covering both present and past, as well as from other characters’ points of view. It’s not impossible to follow, but it takes a while to get used to the rhythm of the writing. I am not familiar enough with Vargas Llosa’s work to know if Edith Grossman is his regular translator, and without reading the original Spanish text, it’s impossible to know how much of the tone is due to the translation.

 But these are all minor quibbles. I throughly enjoyed the book – by far and away my favourite of all we’ve read thus far – but interestingly enough, it didn’t make me want to explore the author’s other work as much as it left me wanting to read more about the Dominican Republic and its social and political history. I will definitely be seeking out some non-fiction on the subject.


Are Melancholy Whores Worth Remembering?

By Andy M on Mon, 23 Jun 2008 16:59:00 GMT

 If you’re one of the few people who’s been following our literary ramblings you might be wondering what happened to us – it’s the last week of June and we still haven’t blogged on Memories of My Melancholy Whores, one of the shortest books in the Reading Challenge. Well, there’s a damn fine reason for that – actually, there’s a number, including holidays in Greece, jetlag and nasty colds on my side at least – and the damn fine reason that most immediately comes to mind is… the book’s a bit crap.

 Harsh vurds (kudos if you get that literary/cinematic reference), you say? I was surprised at how much I disliked this novel. I was so surprised I almost re-read it, given that it’s so short, and given that I was lying on beaches in Greece for most of May and had ample time to do so, just to make sure that I wasn’t being unfair. Ultimately I decided it wasn’t worth the effort.

 Whores is not the first Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel I’ve read, although it’s only the second – One Hundred Years of Solitude was the first. I will most likely read some more of his books in the future but certainly not because of this one. It was a serious disappointment and, I suspect, will probably be the least satisfying of all the books Netty and I read in this Challenge.

 So what’s wrong with it? Well, basically, it’s the story of a 90-year-old pervert who wants to fuck a child virgin for his birthday. I find that kind of repellent, I have to say, even if John Updike finds it a “velvety pleasure to read”. That might just suggest a few things about Updike’s imaginary love life rather than his reading habits. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing; perhaps in some cultures it’s perfectly acceptable for middle-class, well-educated, well-respected nonogenarians to want to stick their dicks in 15-year-old girls. Of course, there are also some cultures that want to carve the clitoris out of even younger girls, so “cultural thing” is no excuse. A 90-year-old man wanting to fuck a child is still repellent.

 The book is also occasionally ridiculous and sometimes simply unbelievable. This old man sits by the girl’s bed for days on end, in a brothel, allowing her to sleep when the whole reasons for being in the brothel in the first place is to … ? And the idea that this teenager would fall in love with her decrepit client is farcical (although I’ll bet Updike and Marquez, being in their twilight years themselves, have other ideas).

 The book’s not entirely irredeemable, though (and I’m not for a moment that it should be banned – but that’s another story). Marquez does write beautifully and the translator – Edith Grossman, who also translated Feast of the Goat – seems amazingly gifted. The frustration and terror of old age is extremely well depicted, as are the final scenes in which, despite his age, the protagonist decides he will live his last days to the full. It’s just a pity that the events which have led him to this epiphany are so distasteful.

 I can well imagine there are plenty of people who’d accuse me of being a prude (you should’ve seen me on Saturday night, bastardo – actually, perhaps not). I’m gay, and my community has long been plagued by the Christian Right’s especially pernicious lie equating poofters with pedophiles. So dirty old men wanting to root children is a subject on which I may be a tad over-sensitive. But I’m not going to get all apologetic. Screw it. This is one of my least favourite books in a long time – and that includes all the shite I read for my day job.


And what Netty thinks of it … ie, not much at all …

By Netty W on Tue, 24 Jun 2008 16:55:47 GMT

 Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear …

 If, like me, you’ve never read any Gabriel Garcia Marquez before, do not – repeat DO NOT – start with this one. Marquez is a significant hole in my reading (hence his inclusion in the Reading Challenge) and I chose this book solely because it is his latest. While it is not going to dissuade me from reading others in his oeuvre, nor is it going to make me hurry into my nearest bookshop, either.

 I concur 100% with Andy on this one. It’s a beautifully written (beautifully translated) novella (115 pages), but the core of its subject matter is just plain gross and riles the feminist in me – big time. Now, I am no prude either, but, as a chick, I have obviously got very strong opinions and feelings on the subject of female prostitution, and particularly child prostitution – which is essentially what this is.

 A writer wakes up on his 90th birthday and decides he wants to bed an “adolescent virgin”. I could bark on for hours about the moral repugnitude of this premise, but I’ll spare you. You undoubtedly already agree with me, with or without reading the book.

 Basically, the unnamed narrator tracks down the madam of an illegal brothel, with whom he has previously had dealings, to help him achieve his goal. The interactions and dialogue between him and Rosa Cabarcas, a lively, immoral woman, was just about the only point of interest for me. She produces a 15-year-old virgin whom the narrator dubs “Delgadina” and then – illogically and absurdly – he proceeds to spend what little money he has going to the brothel every night to watch her sleep. You read that correctly. He falls in love with her. He brings her presents. He writes newspaper columns about his newfound love which strike an immediate chord with his readership. She disappears. He goes off the deep end trying to find her again, which he does. And even though they have barely spoken to each other (when she finally does speak to him rather than just slumber, he admits he prefers her asleep. Pur-leese!), let alone consummated their arrangement, she falls in love with him too. And right outside my window, as I write this, a flock of flying pigs are passing overhead.

 The only redeeming feature of the book, for me, was Marquez’s rather touching, elegantly realised treatises on the ageing process. If one is prepared to overlook the book’s overall machismo treatment of women, whores or otherwise. Which, ultimately, I’m not. So at the end of it I’m just left grateful that reading “Whores” took only a couple of hours out of my life that I’ll never get back.


Slaughterhouse 5 – What Andy Thinks He Thinks Although He Might Not Really

By Andy M on Sun, 13 Jul 2008 18:56:40 GMT

 This might be a shortish entry. I enjoyed Slaugherhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut was a highly original, inventive writer. There’s plenty to smirk at here – he’s very witty – and even his more serious ruminations are presented in a deceptively offhand manner. But I’ve come out the other end with only a handful of opinions about it and I suspect that’s because it’s a book that needs to be reread. Many of the books Netty and I have read already this year deserve to be reread, but whether we get around to it or not is another thing. Slaughterhouse 5 makes enough sense on one reading – just – to be coherent, but I suspect it would make a whole lot more sense second time round. Some people would argue that’s actually a weakness and while in some ways they may have a point, ultimately I disagree.

 When I was a teenager this was one of those archetypal anti-war novels that the whacked-out Christian community I grew up in did not want me to read. Along with Catch-22. I don’t know what it is with Christians; they worship someone they call the Prince of Peace but peace itself is apparently demonic. They didn’t like Cather in the Rye either, apparently because it would turn us all into sociopathic serial killers. Or something. Oh, hang on – I do know what it is with Christians. They’re fucked in the head. The happy clappy ones anyway. Speaking of which there’s a couple of dozen of the fuckers in the church across the road making so much noise at the moment my boyfriend and I are about to hang ourselves from the balcony. But that’s another story.

 I’ve read Catch-22. I probably should reread it, too. I have a vague recollection of it being much more viciously anti-war than Slaughterhouse 5. Vonnegut is a satirist but his satire, compared to Heller’s, anyway, is quite gentle. Heller’s satire is fuckin brutal (and possibly all the better for it, although as I said I haven’t read it for years).  I’ve read Catcher in the Rye, too. And I’m not a serial killer. So ner. Although I suppose it’s possible I’m sociopathic. Like I’d know.

 Vonnegut includes himself in the book as a narrator, but also as a character – he was a prisoner of war, like his character Billy Pilgrim, he was transported to Dresden and he witnessed what may well be the greatest war crime ever committed – although it was perpetrated by the people who ended up winning, so that means it’s not a war crime. Or at least if it is the winners don’t care. There are one or two instances where Billy’s doing something, or something’s being done to Billy, and Vonnegut says something like, see that guy over Billy’s shoulder, the one doing this or that – that’s me. I suspect this is a device used years later by Martin Amis in Money. Don’t think I’m the main character, Vonnegut seems to be saying. But we do think that. Sorry, Kurt.

 You’ll have gathered by this stage that I actually have very little of value to say about this book and I’m not sure why. I definitely think I need to reread it. I enjoyed it but ultimately I’m not sure that I made a great deal of sense of it. Ooops. I’m not supposed to say that, am I?


Netty loves Kurt

By Netty W on Mon, 21 Jul 2008 00:50:56 GMT

 OK, OK, I was supposed to have blogged two weeks ago. I know. I’ve always had this teeny weeny little problemo with procrastination. But better late than never, right? And, you know, so many boys – oops, I mean books – so little time …

 “Slaughterhouse 5” is my favourite book of the Reading Challenge so far. I LOVED it. And I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read any Vonnegut. I’ve actually got Timequake on one of my bookshelves somewhere – just never got around to it. I’ll certainly be prioritising it now, though. And thereafter plan to read my way through his oeuvre. I don’t think Andy shares my enthusiasm to delve headfirst into a pool of Kurt, even though he, too, likes the book.

 Speaking of Andy, he draws parallels between this book and “Catch-22”, as does the back cover blurb. Hate to admit I’ve never read that one, either (refer to first paragraph). I found it not dissimilar to Philip K. Dick – not stylistically, but as an example of intelligent science-fiction (yes, it IS possible). Hard to believe this book was written in 1969. It felt still quite fresh to me. It also reminded me very strongly of Bret Easton Ellis’s “Lunar Park”, taking on a similar form in that both books are apparently narrated by their authors, who are also the main characters. I prefer not to read literature that doesn’t challenge me – I like books that are mind-fucks. And this certainly is.

 It’s a short read – I knocked it over in two sessions within 12 hours. It opens with the narrator – supposedly Vonnegut himself – musing about a book he has written about his experiences in World War II, specifically in Dresden, Germany. Then it becomes that book, which is the story of Billy Pilgrim, who goes to WWII as a chaplain’s assistant. After the war, Pilgrim returns to America and becomes an optometrist, marries, has two children, lives a comfortable life.

 But Pilgrim is also a time traveller – an experience he first encounters towards the end of the war. And the book criss-crosses back and forth through Billy’s life, enabling the reader to see it unfold, but not in chronological order. Vonnegut (the character? the author himself?) also makes occasional appearances in the war passages. (The book is written in third person, and suddenly a sentence will be thrown in along the lines of “I know. I was there.” before jumping back into Billy’s story.) Some of the most amusing passages are Billy’s experiences on the planet Tralfamadore – at one point in his post-war life he is abducted by aliens and lives a parallel existence. As you do. And the account of the fire-bombing of Dresden, in which Billy, then a prisoner of war, survives, is recounted simply, the horror of the event not magnified, but nor understated. 

 I didn’t realise till after I’d finished the book that Vonnegut himself was a WWII POW who witnessed Dresden. My take on the book, which I understand is considered a classic “anti-war” novel, is that Billy reacted to the horrors of his war experiences by losing his mind – hence the time travel incidents, revisiting the past or being propelled into the future. A fascinating concept nonetheless.

 I reckon this would be a book you could happily read and reread every few years or so, and get more out of each time. I know I intend to do so.

 Five stars.


Equus – not worth a piece of old hoof? Neigh!

By Andy M on Fri, 15 Aug 2008 18:52:00 GMT

 I reserve the right to revisit this in the next few days. I’m late blogging and need to post something but me mum’s visiting and I can’t leave her upstairs with the boyfriend for too long. They’ll think I’m mast –

Equus is possibly my favourite read of the challenge so far. It’s intelligent, witty, profound, sad, and it manages to explore in depth an number of areas in a small number of pages. Is it a play about sex? religion? mental illness? teenage rebellion? the emotionsl and social poverty of the modern condition? What I love about the play – which I’ve never seen performed live (nor seen the movie) is that it manages to be about all of those things, not just individually but as they impinge upon one another. It almost seems like Shaffer is saying that the need to worship is both a pschological need in humanity but also the cause of much psychological damage; the loss of the need for worship (and religion) is necessary for the psychological health of humanity in the modern world – but that loss will have a catastrophic effect not just on the individual but on the community in general as well. Religious belief – unavoidable but bad. Loss of religion – necesary but just as bad. I’m simplifying and perhaps I’m even reading far too much into the play (and I should note that Netty and I spent less than five minutes discussing the book last Friday before returning to a larger conversation about oral sex – so we haven’t done the usual dissection in which she could have torn my ideas to pieces and perhaps convinced me to write something else. Not that that’s happened with any of the other books). Perhaps it’s just a play about a kid who can’t get it up and takes it out on a bunch of innocent nags.

I may add to this a little later, as this is one text that I have much to bang on about. But for now I need more wine. And dinner. And I need my mum to know that I’m not down here mast –


And what I thought … and why we should all read more plays

By Netty W on Sat, 23 Aug 2008 14:39:58 GMT

Can’t remember when I last read a play – hell, I hardly ever SEE a play, let alone read one. (Exception to the rule: went to see Hamlet last month, with Brendan Cowell playing the Prince of Denmark as a Craig Nicholls-type rock star. Thoroughly enjoyed it, too, despite the mixed reviews. But I digress).

Having said that, however, I’m of the firm belief that we (the people) need to read more plays. More prose. More poetry. In Reading Challenge 2009 (oh, yes, faithful followers), I think Andy and I might have to assign two of this category to our list.

 Which brings me to Equus. Oh, that’s right – the last play I think I read was another by Peter Shaffer. The Royal Hunt Of The Sun, which I studied in college lit. Have vague notions that I enjoyed it at the time; I remember that I got a credit on the essay. (Oops, there I go again. Digressing …)

 I wonder if the reason it’s taking me so long to get around to the point – and, indeed, has taken me so long to get around to blogging about it – is that while I enjoyed reading Equus a great deal, I didn’t actually agree with a lot of it.

It’s the story of teenage stablehand Alan Strang, who blinds six of his master’s horses with a metal spike. (In the forward to my edition – Penguin modern classics – Shaffer says the crux of the plot comes from a true crime).  Heather Salomon, a magistrate, refers Strang to her friend, psychiatrist Martin Dysart, in a last-ditch effort to redeem the boy.  And the pair begins session at which Dysart, in his attempt to draw out Strang and comprehend his actions, becomes embroiled in his own mental turmoil, during which he questions his life, his marriage and his career.

That’s the bit I had the most trouble with. It’s a horrific crime, and Strang, a complex character with a very tenuous grip on reality at the best of times, is clearly an ingredient or two short of a dry martini. Obviously, even a hardened professional in the mental health field would be deeply affected by the case. But I found Dysart a bit too pompous and his reactions a bit too melodramatic, even bordering at times on the narcisstic, for my liking. No plot spoilers here, either, but the reader eventually discovers how and why the crime unfolded and at the crux of it is a girl called Jill, who, to my mind, is too easily typecast into the role of Eve. And that detracted from my overall enjoyment of the play as well.

Maybe I’m nit-picking. At the end of the day, as I said, I did enjoy reading Equus. I would love to see its production – the comprehensive staging notes fascinated me. And it left me with the determination to both read and see more plays. So overall, the pros outweigh the cons. Considerably.


Equus – it behoofs me to add a word or two

By Andy M on Sat, 23 Aug 2008 19:43:51 GMT

Netty suggested I should rewrite, or at least seriously edit – my previous post, partly because there was a bit too much in there about my mother and her suspicions about my masturbatory habits but also because there were some typos. I reread it and I quite liked it, so I fixed the typo (singular) and thought I’d reblog instead. Ooh. Controversy.

I had this sneaking suspicion last weekend that once I’d sobered up I’d be a wee bit embarrassed by my previous thoughts. Not at all, as it happens. Which is why I’m letting it stand. Equus is an amazing text. In less than 100 pages it has astonishingly profound things to say about an astonishing range of subjects. It’s about religion – and perhaps, given the horses, it’s about the evolutionary roots of all religions in animism (yes I know animism doesn’t necessarily mean the worship of animals but it does refer to the role of the natural world in religious belief). Jesus gets a mention or two, while Alan’s mum’s Christianity and his father’s somewhat simplistic socialism are arguably of a similar ilk. Oddly enough, despite Frank’s childishly strident leftism (and I’m a raving leftie myself, before anybody thinks about getting offended) this doesn’t strike me as being a political play. Or if it is a political play it engages with politics at so deep a level that the vast majority of our elected representatives would be at a loss to understand it beyond it being that fucked-up play about the freak that pokes those horses eyes out. N shit.

It’s also a play about psychology – or perhaps more accurately it’s a play about the way in which science – and our understanding of the world in which we live, and our understanding of ourselves (um, science, in other words) – has stripped the imagined magic from our existence. In the play’s last scenes Dysart is distressed – wearily, cynically distressed perhaps, but distressed nonetheless – by the fact that his treatment of Alan will destroy some of the boy’s ability to engage with the world as Alan would choose to engage. To bastardise the Verve: the drugs will work, and they will make it worse.

I should probably stop blathering at this point.  I will say thought tha I disagree with at least one of Netty’s objections. Dysart is an amazing creation and I think the way he engages with Alan and with the situation of dealing with Alan is brilliantly portrayed. There’s professional concern as well as professional cynicism. There’s the weirdly offensive understanding that he’s living out his own sexual dysfunction through Alan. And there’s his belief – present at the play’s beginning and made more explicit at the end – that what he is doing is yes, helping his patients in some way, but ultimately devastating, ultimately destructive. I happen to disagree with him. In some ways this book harks back to Dawkins’s Unweaving the Rainbow – Shaffer perhaps believes that science necessarily destroys religion but in doing so tragically destroys beauty. Dawkins – and I – would argue that science gives us the knowledge to abandon religion and the tools to more intelligently appreciate and enjoy beauty. So when push comes to shove I don’t actually agree with what (I think) Shaffer is saying. But the manner in which he says it is a joy to behold.

There is still, of course, the possibility that I’m talking out my arse.


The Black Prince – What Andy Thinks he thought when he read it decades ago…

By Andy M on Sat, 04 Oct 2008 22:53:57 GMT

Ahem. It’s October. And finally we’re blogging about August’s book. Really, there are some fatuous arguments for banning MSN but this isn’t one of them. Not one of the fatuous ones. You reading this, Netty? Like, if this is a challenge and there is the possibility that the challenge might not be met, then… Oh never mind.

When I was at uni we read The French Lieutenant’s Woman (I haven’t used this anecdote yet, have I?) Our lecturer took immense pleasure in pointing out how crap the back-cover blurb for the book was – the problem wasn’t that it gave the reader no idea of the story, but that whoever had written it had no idea what the book was about, or how it worked. The back-cover blurb for The Black Prince – my Penguin edition, anyway – falls into a similar category.”A story about being in love” my arse. “A remarkable intellectual thriller” my skanky granma. “A superbly involuted plot”? “A meditation on the nature of art and love”? Get stuffed.

 OK, some of that might be a little unfair. There’s a love story in there – at least one, most likely two or three or perhaps even more. But it’s not a story about being in love. And while The Black Prince is remarkably intellectual, it’s not a thriller. And while the postscripts by dramatis personae complicate what has come before, they are not as disruptive as some commentators suggest. And what has come before is not “superbly involuted”. It’s a smirkingly funny pisstake of countless novels and movies and TV shows from the 50s and 60s where the lives of terribly nice, polite middle-class people get slightly messy. Although, admittedly, Bradley’s life gets more than slightly messy.

My suggestion for the back cover would read something like: “Bradley Pearson: WANKER!”

 OK, that might be a little unfair as well. But as has been said before, none of the characters in this book is particularly likable, although I admit to having some affection for Bradley by the time I’d finished it. He’s a self-important old git, for sure, he’s almost certainly not remotely as talented as he thinks he is. He emotionally retarded, he’s a backstabbing old queen (although not in the sexual sense – his sexuality is questioned on a number of occasions but I reckon he’s straight) and he’s amoral enough to think having an affair with a friend’s 20-year-old daughter is acceptable. Oh, hang on. Actually I didn’t have a problem with that bit. Well. The scenes in which Bradley is in lerve with Julian are hilarious, as are many of the scenes where they are a couple. Bradley’s just – hilarious. Arnold and Rachel are at their most despicable in their confrontation with Bradley, although I suppose any decent parent would react as they do. But: ultimately, despite being a dithering, dirty old love, despite being pretty unsympathetic, I actually had a bit of a soft spot for old Brad by the time I’d finished the book.

The other characters, though…

And that’s where those postscripts come in.

According to that damnable back-cover blurb (yup, back there again, sorry), these postscripts cast “a shifting perspective on all that has gone before”. Um, no, actually. On bits and pieces of what’s gone before maybe, but certainly not all. In fact the postscripts make clear that none of the story’s participants disagree with more than the occasional fact (like, oh, I don’t know, who murdered Arnold Baffin). What I found interesting about the postscripts wasn’t the light they cast on the events described by Bradley, but what they revealed about the characters themselves – and how Bradley had treated them in his narrative.

The first two postscripts, by Christian and Francis, fascinated me the most. Christian, Bradley’s first wife, he depicted throughout his narrative as a highly intelligent, cultured, sophisticated woman. Bradley  gives Christian a wonderfully knowing voice and presence. Christian’s postscript, though, suggests someone rather less sophisticated and rather less intelligent. Apart from anything else, she doesn’t know what a paragraph is. So Bradley has suggested that his ex-wife is rather more impressive than she really is. Francis is at the other end of the spectrum. Bradley creates a pathetic alcoholic, a shambling, weepy homosexual, a discredited medic, a man not ashamed to ask constantly for a spare quid or five from family and colleagues. The Francis of the postscript may be gay, he may be an alcoholic, he may be discredited and he may be shameless. But he bares little resemblance to the wreck of Bradley’s narrative. There are similar elements in the postscripts of Rachel and Julian, although it’s the first two that really grabbed me.

 So I finished The Black Prince thinking that Rachel had indeed murdered her husband, that Bradley’s narrative was broadly accurate despite some tinkering with his cast of characters. I thought the last 10-12 pages of part 1, where Bradley and Julian discuss Hamlet, was some of the best stuff I’ve read in ages. And while it’s not my favourite book of the challenge it’s got under my skin in a way some of our other books haven’t.  I’ll be re-reading it, I suspect, and I’ll certainly be snuffling out a bit more of Auntie Iris.


… And what Netty thinks when she read it … errr … five hours ago …

By Netty W on Sun, 05 Oct 2008 00:25:20 GMT

Well, I’ve already said my piece on the timing of these entries (see my previous blog) and anyone who’s been following this blog since January – and anyone who knows me personally – has already figured out I have a teeny eeny weeny little problem with procrastination. OK. So sue me (just make sure the case doesn’t come to trial anytime soon …) 

Enough already! So, The Black Prince … Never previously read any Iris Murdoch. Didn’t know much about her, besides that she had Alzheimer’s in her later years and that Kate Winslet played her in a biopic. I went into reading this sight unseen – I never seek out information before I dive into a book, and I’m particularly glad I didn’t here, because almost all the reviews and dissertations I’ve subsequently read give away all the various plot twists which made my reading of this so enjoyable. In fact, coming into writing this blog, I was almost resigned to being able to say hardly anything about the plot for not wanting to spoil it for any yet-to-be readers. Of course, Andy and I both agreed at the onset of the Reading Challenge that it should come with a big “spoilers alert” emblazoned on it. And Andy’s entry goes into several of these that I was not even going to touch on. I will end this tract of thought by simply saying that knowing what is going to happen is not going to ruin your enjoyment of The Black Prince. But for me personally, I’m very glad that I did not know ahead of time.

My edition of The Black Prince is 416 pages of rather-small-type long (and no, bear with me, this is not another excuse …) Apparently Murdoch was well-known for resisting editing of her novels, and she was also a well-regarded philosopher – but for mine, the book could have lost about 100 pages of the narrator’s inner monologues and have been all the better for it. When the novel concerns itself with the dialogue-driven plot, it gallops along at an almighty pace, and is fast, funny and as easy to devour as a tub of Homer Hudson Hoboken Crunch (guess what I had for dinner tonight?) But it slows down to a rather tedious grinding plod once the aforementioned narrator – Bradley Pearson – starts pfaffing on, as is his wont. After all, it’s clear he’s telling his story in retrospect, but we don’t really need all that self-indulgent reflection and pontificating …

Which brings me to the characters – all hugely dislikable, which in this case (unlike, say, the narrator of An Equal Music – see January’s blog) didn’t detract one iota from my immense enjoyment of the novel. It is the story of Pearson, a largely unsuccessful English writer in his late 50s who is attempting to retire to the country to write his life’s great novel, but events and people keep getting in his way – namely his frenemy Arnold Baffin, a wildly successful, non-literary novelist (think Dan Brown), his dissatisfied, duplicitious wife Rachel, their naive 20-year-old daughter Julian, Pearson’s ex-wife Christian, newly widowed and newly arrived back in London, her brother Francis Marloe, a discredited doctor and full-time alcoholic, and Pearson’s sister Priscilla. All these people’s lives are intertwined in comic and tragic ways – an incredibly intelligent, witty and thought-provoking soap opera of a story (no, that’s no tautology, and yes, that is a compliment). It all gets a bit Camus at the end, but that is never a bad thing.

 The plot twists and turns inside out and back on itself again in ways I didn’t foresee, which is why I am so loath to elaborate any further. You’re just going to have to read it for yourself, and trust me – it’s worth it. Maybe even the pfaffing parts. And I really enjoyed the Four Postscripts at the end of the book – giving Christian, Francis, Rachel and Julian’s take on their relationship with Pearson and the events which had unfolded. A very clever device for mine which gave the much-maligned narrator and his story more credence even as the characters strive to do the opposite.

And Andy’s right about the blurb – same one’s on my copy, even though mine’s a Vintage Classic. I mean, it certainly is about love. And art. And philosophy. It’s intellectual. And sometimes it’s thrilling. It’s even about Hamlet. But you’ll have to read the thing yourself to really find out.

Four stars 


The Crying of Lot 49 – What Andy thought after the headache tablets kicked in

By Andy M on Sun, 26 Oct 2008 16:24:00 GMT

“Paranoia,” Springer snaps… “You wouldn’t understand that.” (Gravity’s Rainbow)

Um, no. I wouldn’t.

OK, headache tablets is too strong. Pynchon didn’t give me a headache, and I enjoyed it more than not. But it’s easily the most difficult book of the Reading Challenge thus far, and obviously the one that demands most clearly to be reread. And it will be, sooner rather than later. That, in itself, is proof enough of how good it is. But I’m not sure it’s as good as it (and, indeed, everybody else) seems to think it is.

Pynchon is a self-consciously difficult writer. He’s also self-consciously clever.  The Crying of Lot 49 – and, I assume, most if not everything else he’s written – could be interpreted as a great big billboard pointing at the writer with the words “OOOOOOH!!! LOOK AT HOW CLEVER I AM!!!!!!” written on it. In that way it reminded me a bit of another book I’ve read this year, Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole. But Toltz is no Pynchon, and he didn’t deserve to be nominated for the Booker this year. Pynchon’s the real deal, it’s just a pity he has to make it all so hard for the reader. Or maybe I’m just dumb.

Lot 49 is very funny, no doubt about it. My favourite section is probably the description of the Jacobean tragedy which sends Oedipa off on her ultimately fruitless quest. Many of the loons she meets along the way also made me smirk, her shrink in particular. And of course the characters’ names are a good giggle, too (Mike Fallopian, Genghis Cohen). I also think it’s bizarre that this huge Tristero “conspiracy” is based around the most boring, day-to-day activity – mail delivery. But what Pynchon’s actually on about, I’m ashamed to admit, largely escaped me, and that’s why Lot 49 demands to be reread.

I’ve read a bit of commentary since finishing the book and have to say most of it is news. So we, as readers, are on a quest similar to Oedipa’s – Pynchon is doing to us what the shadowy conspiratorial figures are doing to Oedipa. Um. OK. Makes sense. Didn’t occur to me while I was reading it (yup, I must be dumb). Also: The book is an exploration of how the concept of “meaning” has been transformed by postmodernist thinking. OK, missed that too.

I might get around to reading some more Pynchon at some stage – Gravity’s Rainbow is sitting on my bookshelf (and the quote at the top of this blog was the result of a slightly drunken flick through its pages last night), V’s on display in the window of a local secondhand bookshop, and I’ll certainly be taking another stab at Lot 49 soon enough. But the density of his material does not make him a hugely attractive proposition.


No tears from Netty for The Crying Of Lot 49

By Netty W on Sun, 26 Oct 2008 21:14:07 GMT

I’m not stupid. I’ve got an above-average IQ. I understand and grasp sometimes quite complicated concepts over a broad spectrum of subjects. But I’ll be damned if I can make head nor tail of Pynchon’s The Crying Of Lot 49, chosen specifically as an entry point into his oeuvre and allegedly his most accessible and certainly his shortest novel.

I also resent being made to feel like I’m stupid, which is what this book has done. Andy has hit the nail on the head with his post and I will go one step further by saying being clever for the sake of being clever is just plain dumb (pun absolutely intended). I don’t recall being this infuriated by a book in a very long time. Moreso because I was very much looking forward to having read it. I’m also annoyed because I’m going to have to go back and reread it – and soon – to try and make a lot more sense of it than I have.

The plot line goes thus (as far as I can make out): Oedipa Maas, a Californian woman in her late 20s (the book was written and is set in the mid-1960s) is named executor of the estate of her late ex-boyfriend Pierce Inverarity, a multi-millionaire property developer. Oedipa is married to Wendell “Mucho” Maas, a Mexican-born DJ suffering a crisis of faith of sorts. She seeks out a lawyer called Metzger, the co-executor of the will, with whom she has a brief fling before he leaves her alone to unravel the tangle of Inverarity’s interests. Which leads to Oedipa’s discovery of The Tristero, a centuries-old, underground, alternative mail system, via an assortment of odd-ball characters who are either helping or hindering her every step of the way.

That’s it in a nutshell – I think. Oh, who the fuck knows, really. Look, there’s no doubt it’s a very clever book. It’s just that it may well drive you up the wall trying to make sense of it. It reminded me a lot in that sense of the mid-1970s Monty Python rockumentary spoof The Rutles, based on the story of The Beatles – insofar as that movie is absolutely littered with often-obscure references which the viewer would only get if he/she was a Beatles aficiando. You can still enjoy The Rutles as a Beatles neophyte, but it is so very much richer if you get all the in-jokes. And that’s how I felt about Lot 49 – I kept getting the feeling that every second reference had some deeper meaning, but I just didn’t have the benefit of that knowledge. And knowing that I didn’t know just made it even more irritating for me as a reader.

As for Pynchon’s other books, well … Let’s just say I’ve got more chance of finally knocking over Ulysses than tackling Gravity’s Rainbow or V any time soon. Sure, books are meant to challenge you. But deliberately making it this bloody hard for your readers, well, Mr Pynchon, not  necessarily very smart.

Two and a half stars. She says very begrudgingly.


The Reluctant Fundamentalist – What Andy (a tad reluctantly) Thinks

By Andy M on Sun, 16 Nov 2008 17:23:00 GMT

Only a fortnight late. Not too bad. I suppose one of the reasons I’m a bit late blogging is that I didn’t respond terribly passionately to this book and so I don’t have much to say about it.

Now don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed it – read it in two sittings, in fact. Mohsin Hamid is a good writer, he spins a good yarn, he tackles some of the big issues of our age intelligently and with wit and irony. Intelligence, wit, irony – it’s all adding up. But I’m afraid I didn’t think this was a terribly substantial novel, and that’s got nothing to do with the length – Lot 49 was shorter, but  a more substantial read (and yes, a more difficult one, too). All the tricksy stuff with the narrator and his one-man audience in Lahore is initially clever but ultimately a tad predictable (although Netty and I came to diametrically opposite conclusions about what is happening on the last page). The love affair between Changez and Erica seems to belong in a different novel, and it’s also a tad predictable as well as cliched. And the scene in which Changez pretends to be Erica’s dead lover is just… icky. But I guess for me the novel’s primary weakness is that as an insight into the aftermath of September 11 it offers little more than could (and can) be gleaned from the opinion pages of newspapers, or from websites and current-affairs magazines that lean to the left (the kind I read, in other words). I don’t think it delves terribly deeply into the way September 11 affected this man (Changez’s) life, nor does it explore the hatred he clearly has for the West – he laughs, after all, when the towers come down. before his life has been affected for the worse. He may have been transformed into a reluctant fundamentalist by the novel’s closing pages but the novel itself doesn’t do a terribly good job of explaining that process. I realise these issues are explored but not, to my mind, terribly deeply. Maybe it’s all just a bit too subtle for me. The reference to Camus and Fitzgerald on the back cover leave me completely bemused. I’ve read a lot of Fitzgerald and a bit of Camus, admittedly in both cases quite a few years ago. Again, maybe the reference is just a tad too subtle for me. Or maybe I should stop reading the blurbs on the back of books.

As an exploration of terror Due Preparations for the Plague trumps this. And I’ve recently read Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, which isn’t about September 11 but features a short discussion of it. His depiction of elderly Greek immigrants in Melbourne laughing scornfully at the United States and its people’s loss is shocking, but it’s also far more powerful – in a few paragraphs – than anything Hamid achieves over the course of his novel.

 However, as I said, I enjoyed the book. It’s well written, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting read and I would probably recommend it – with reservations – if someone asked about it. I might even be prepared to read it again, although that would be at least partly because I know it’s not going to take up a great deal of my time or energy. It’s entirely possible that reading it as quickly as I did – and I did so because I was enjoying it, not because I wanted to get it out of the way – resulted in me missing a lot. Ultimately though it’s in my bottom three of the books we’ve read thus far in the challenge.


Fundamentally, nothing reluctant about Netty’s response …

By Netty W on Tue, 18 Nov 2008 00:57:00 GMT

… Well, nothing that is except the timeframe within which I post … ah, I feel a NY resolution coming on for the 2009 Reading Challenge (yes, dear readers, you read that right! Even more of this to look forward to next year!)

But I digress (as is my wont). I really enjoyed The Reluctant Fundamentalist, despite one or two minor flaws. It’s the second book by Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid, and, interestingly enough and going against the norm (and I say this without having read his first novel) it follows closely along autobiographical lines. The author and his narrator Changez are both Pakistanis who complete their tertiary education at Princeton Uni and pursue careers in management consultancy. So the flavour of the book – that of a Lahore-born national adapting to life in the States – comes across as authentic and genuine. As all budding authors are advised, write about what you know.

I love the way the book was presented as a first-person monologue directed solely at one person – Changez, now living back in Lahore, meets an American stranger in a cafe. They share a meal and conversation over several hours, during which Changez tells his story, despite the American’s unease with the situation and his surroundings, which is only revealed through Changez’s reactions to him – the man never speaks. (Opening gambit: “Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you.”) In this regard, the telling of the tale is just as striking as Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City – one of my favourite books and one of my favourite authors – which is told solely in the second person.

So we learn that Changez is at Princeton as an international student on a scholarship, his family having fallen on hard times back in Lahore, tops his classes and is headhunted by a top New York valuation firm, for which he excels. He falls in love with fellow student Erica, a rich, but troubled NYC girl whom he meets on a summer vacation. It’s all going swimmingly until the September 11 attacks, which Changez – in the Phillippines for business – witnesses from his hotel room.

His response is to smile and be pleased that “someone had so visibly brought America to her knees”. This is for me is the book’s major flaw – this revelation comes from seemingly out of nowhere, as Changez is very much pursuing the American dream at this point, and is used as a very slim justification for where the plot heads thereafter. Changez, as a brown-skinned foreigner with a beard, deals with living in NY in a paranoid, post-9-11 world. Erica, never the most stable girl in the first place, heads mentally downhill rapidly; Changez becomes increasingly disillusioned with his life and work in the US and increasingly preoccupied with political and economic turmoil in his home country, until, on assignment in Chile, he has a revelation that leads him back to Pakistan and sets him on a new life course.

I really liked the ending, which is very much left up to the reader to decide what has just happened, and about which Andy and I had pretty much opposite opinions. It didn’t leave me frustrated, as did the ending of The Crying Of Lot 49, which also goes unresolved. And the book reads seamlessly, as you’d hope and expect from a slim (184 pages) volume.

So, minor quibbles aside, it’s an overall thumbs up. Three and a half stars for me, and I’ll definitely be seeking out Hamid’s debut novel Moth Smoke.


Vile Bodies – What Andy Thinks

By Andy M on Sat, 06 Dec 2008 19:28:00 GMT

Sorry, no pun or catchy line for the title of this blog. I’m sure Netty will dazzle us all with her wit, though.

I’ve only read two of Evelyn Waugh’s other books – A Handful of Dust (which I have little memory of, other than that I enjoyed it) and Brideshead Revisited, which I happen to think is one of the finest British novels of the 20th century, containing one of the most brilliant creations in English literature (Sebastian), and resulting in one of the best pieces of television imaginable. So, given all that hyperbolic nonsense, it’s kind of surprising that I’ve only actually read two of his books.

 Vile Bodies was only Waugh’s second novel and it’s the product of a man in a very different frame of mind, and a very different environment, to the bloke who wrote Brideshead. Vile Bodies is snide. It’s shallow. Its satire leers and it sneers. It’s depraved and it’s decadent, it’s nasty and vicious and it’s utterly, shamelessly amoral and I absolutely fucking loved it. This man converted to Catholicism at some point in his life, I suspect after he’d written this although not too much later. There is something about that fact, in relation to this book, that just leaves me dazed.

 Brideshead is obviously known for its gay characters. In 1945 Waugh could perhaps afford to be slightly more explicit than he is in Vile Bodies – but he’s much cheekier about it here. Miles Malpractice isn’t as magnificent a creation as Sebastian but he’s still very funny – and very gay. There’s at least one lesbian character, too. Meanwhile, a woman loses her virginity and says she “never hated anything so much in my life”, young girls are recruited to work as prostitutes in South America, a woman dies during what (as far as I could tell) seems to be a bizarre sex game involving a chandelier and copious amounts of champagne … For something that was published in 1930, it all seems very naughty and kind of smutty and rather disreputable. I spent a significant amount of time smirking while I was reading this, and that’s no bad thing. The smirk is seriously under-rated.

And I have to mention Lottie Crump – the hotelier (in whose establishment the lady of dubious repute, formerly mentioned, met an untimely end in assocation with a chandelier and champagne) who seems to be shitfaced from seven in the morning onwards. That’s one of the other things I loved about this book. Everyone is drunk at home, or drunk and partying, or drunk at home partying, or just drunk. Or mad.

Needless to say, I’m not suggesting there’s no serious literary intent here. Clearly there is. The broad thrust of Vile Bodies is similar to The Great Gatsby, skewering the values and lifestyles of the rich and ethically vacuous.  Vile Bodies isn’t as fine a literary achievement as Gatsby, but it’s a  lot more fun.

That said, though – it absolutely is a fun read – the humour becomes increasingly dark. The death of the gossip columnist, who files a completely fabricated and libellous piece and then gasses himself in the oven, is both hilarious and shocking. The humour becomes darker and darker until you get to the sarcastically titled “Happy ending” – a chapter that should still leave you smirking, but humour that’s pitch black nonetheless.

 Vile Bodies isn’t the best book of the Reading Challenge by a long shot. But it’s certainly one of the most enjoyable.

 NB: It may be worth pointing out that Vile Bodies is currently out of print in Australia. If you’re keen to find a copy try a secondhand bookshop. Or Amazon. Otherwise some mega chain store will order it in for you from overseas, and charge you a packet.


Crap title, brilliant book …

By Netty W on Sun, 07 Dec 2008 00:26:39 GMT

There’s a lot of authors out there I haven’t read and a lot that I should have read – and to be perfectly honest I don’t think I ever would have picked up anything by Evelyn Waugh had Andy not chosen this book. I know I’m SUPPOSED to have read something of his – say, Brideshead Revisited, or, more likely Scoop – but no … And if I was going to have read any Waugh, I doubt very much if I would have selected a book called Vile Bodies.

Apparently he was going to call it Bright Young Things, after the London social set of the late 1920s which is the novel’s subject, but thought it was too cliched a title. (The book was made into a 2003 movie of that name, directed by Stephen Fry, a copy of which I picked up today, but am yet to watch. The reviews, I seem to recall, were not much chop, but who listens to reviewers anyway? Ahem … )

OK, so crap title, brilliant book. Some of the best satire I have ever read, Waugh both sympathises with and skewers upper-class London society in this, his second novel. There is not a weak link in his cast of myriad, sometimes motley characters, some of which, I understand, make appearances in at least another of his books – not unlike the ’80s lit brat packers such as McInerney and Ellis, who did exactly the same thing in their writing about their own social sets 50 years later.

The main thread of Vile Bodies centres around Adam Fenwick-Symes, a budding novelist whose novel is confiscated by customs after a Channel boat crossing, thus forcing him to find other means to make enough money to be able to marry the upper-crust, ennui-ridden Nina Blount. The pair’s hilarious on-again off-again engagement (“You haven’t got any money?” “No”. “So we aren’t going to be married today?”) is dictated by Adam’s ability to earn a living. He wins a thousand pounds in a bar-room bet then, hands it over to a drunken Major to punt on a horse with long odds and little chance of winning. He tries to coerce cash from his potential father-in-law, the eccentric and thoroughly dotty Colonel Blount. He takes over a the post of Mr Chatterbox, a gossip columnist, after the previous encumbant commits suicide, then proceeds to make up most of what he writes about. Meanwhile his extended circle of friends attends party after party, drink to excess, frolick and carouse, while their elders tut-tut about their behaviour.

The cast of characters is truly memorable, concisely realised and bursting with comedic opportunity – from the American evangelist Melrose Ape and her troupe of not-so-angelic choirgirls; to “last week’s Prime Minister”, the Hon. Walter Outrage MP; to Lottie Crump, the crafty proprietress of the hotel where Adam takes up residence; to gadabout society-girl-about-town Agatha Runcible (my personal favourite). And the chapter where Adam, Agatha, Miles Malpractice (the names are priceless) and Archie Schwert drive up country to attend a motor race is one of the most effortlessly funny and thoroughly enjoyable passages I have ever – EVER – read. And worth the admission price alone.

It’s black comedy, no doubt about it, but the best comedy generally is, more times than not. Some of the reviews I’ve read since finishing Vile Bodies say it’s bleak, and while I can see why they’d say that, I don’t necessarily agree. Certainly the bleakness never overwhelms the humour. And the ending – and where Adam finishes up after all his travails – is absolutely perfect for both that character and the book itself.

It’s a cracker of a read from go to whoa. Four and a half stars for me.


Portnoy’s Complaint – Andy’s got nothing to complain about (oh, hilarious)

By Andy M on Thu, 01 Jan 2009 18:09:19 GMT

Sigh. After giving Lynette hell for not getting it read by the time she swore black and blue she’d have it read (too much booze, too many… well, too much booze is her story), I didn’t get around to blogging until the new year. Oops. Still, I’m increasingly of the opinion that nobody actually reads this stuff anyway so who the hell cares?

 I’m not sure if Portnoy’s Complaint is the funniest book I’ve ever read, but – along with last month’s Vile Bodies – it’s gotta be up there in the top 10, probably even the top 5. It’s the kind of book that makes you snort on public transport, in that really embarrassing way that makes old ladies look at you like you’ve got poo on your nose. It’s astonishing that this was written before I was born – about the same time that Myra Breckridge was written, in fact. British censors demanded that certain cuts be made to Myra because Gore Vidal was apparently just too darn naughty for those straight-laced Poms. To my knowledge no such demands were made about Portnoy’s Complaint, which is bizarre because it’s infinitely more offensive (although it’s been a while since I’ve read Myra. Maybe I should revisit).

 With chapter titles like Whacking Off and Cunt Crazy, Portnoy’s Complaint could be mistaken for little more than a piece of amusing filth. Even if you make that mistake, it’s a pretty impressive achievement. But there’s plenty more going on here, including very funny explorations of Jewish family life and Jewish masculinity. I think these elements of the book left Netty slightly dazed, or at least they weren’t things she’d encountered much before. I guess I’ve read enough Chaim Potok and watched enough Woody Allen for it to be a bit more familiar to me. Doesn’t make it any less amusing or fascinating – in particular, Portnoy’s inability to get a hardon while he’s in the Holy Land is just bizarre.

In some ways it’s a product of its time. Freudian psychology still reigned triumphant in the ’60s; it’s only been in the past 20 or so years that we’ve become more accepting of the idea that sexuality, and the sex drive itself, is moulded not so much by childhood and relationships with parents as it is by genes and biology. If anything that makes Portnoy an even funnier creation, because his angst and paranoia are entirely misdirected. Not what Philip Roth intended, I’m sure, but it adds another layer to the novel. Or it did for me, anyway.

 I haven’t really done justice to Portnoy, partly because I finished it weeks ago (nudge nudge, Netty) but mostly because it’s New Year’s Day and my head hurts. Oh, and I’m hungry. Where the hell’s my boyfriend? But it’s one of my favourite books of the year (a subject on which Netty and I will be expanding in the next week or two) and it’s sure to be re-read at some point in the future.  And if everything goes according to plan (ie, if Netty GETS THE FUCKING BOOKS READ ON TIME THIS YEAR) and we move on to Reading Challenge 2010, I suspect Mr Roth will be turning up again. But more on that later.

 Oh – and one last thing. It’s one of the few books on the face of the planet that probably has more exclamation marks than full stops. And surprisingly, that didn’t piss me off. Ordinarily I am not a fan of exclamation marks. Just thought I’d mention it.


And absolutely none from Netty, either …

By Netty W on Mon, 05 Jan 2009 23:17:14 GMT

Three words. Oh. My. God.

I chose this book because I had always wanted to read Philip Roth, and it made sense to start here, with probably the most famous (or, more fittingly, notorious) of his books. I went into it knowing it was about sex. And I am far – FAR – from prudish. But even still, I have to admit that I read most of Portnoy’s Complaint with my jaw firmly on the ground.

The Guardian blurb on the cover of my copy says it’s “the most outrageously funny book about sex yet written”. Some research I did post-reading revealed that it was actually banned in Australia around 1969 (ahem, no pun intended), two years after its American release.  And I’m guessing the reason why is because of all the sex in the book – mostly, it has to be said, of the self-gratification variety. Never ever have I read so many ways to describe the act of male masturbation which never, not once, stoops into the pornographic in its descriptions, and is so absolutely side-splittingly funny at the same time.

The book is presented as a monologue by Roth’s alter-ego (oh, he MUST be) Alexander Portnoy, speaking to his shrink, Dr Spielvogel (if there’s an in-joke there, I don’t know what it is). From the outside, Portnoy looks like a 1960s east coast Jewish American success story – in the his early 30s, he is Assistant Commissioner for the City of New York Commission on Human Opportunity; he dates a beautiful shikse whom he nicknames “the Monkey”; he has the world on a platter. But as Portnoy’s story unfolds, he is revealed as a narcisstic, neurotic, anti-goyim (or whatever the opposite to anti-semite is), self-obsessed blame-mongerer.

But he is also as hilarious a fictional character as I ever come across – whether he be berating his parents (very worthy fictional creations in their own right), his string of shikse girlfriends, or the Jewish community in which he grew up. It is cleverly, viciously anti-goyim (my word) – almost a sort of racism you couldn’t get away with in print if it was reversed. I have had very little – none, really – exposure to all things Jewish – I’ve never lived in New York, or even Caulfield for that matter, have only ever watched a couple of Woody Allen films. So the portrayal of growing up in that community was almost completely alien to me, but completely fascinating and always shot through with the blackest of humour.

So if you’ve never read Portnoy’s Complaint, don’t hesitate a second longer. Fitting that it was the last book of the year on 2008 Reading Challenge because it’s also my favourite of the 12 we have read (more of that in a post coming to a computer screen near you in the next week).

Five stars.


And so, ladies and gentlemen, summing up on what we’ve seen thus far…

By Andy M on Sun, 25 Jan 2009 17:08:00 GMT

 This was Netty’s idea, this bit. Not mine. Like, I’m happy to post n shit, but it was her idea. So her idea is we both give a summary of our Reading Challenge experience last year, and then she’ll let you (ah yes, that mysterious you) know what we’ll be reading this year.

 So, given that we both work for tabloid newspapers and tabloids are notoriously obsessed with the lowest common denominator let’s start at the bottom of the pile, shall we? And there we find one tome, one shining example of dire shitfulness, and three books that don’t actually deserve that kind of company but don’t belong in the upper echelons of the rest of our reading.

 Memories of My Melancholy Whores was pretty crap. It was a bit rubbish. I mean OK, large swathes of it were wondrously written, and it was short (thank Christ). But as I said at the time it was a book about a geriatric who wants to fuck a child. And Marquez tried to make that a noble quest. Blech. I started the year wanting to read quite a bit more Marquez (I’ve previously read 100 Years of Solitude) but by the time I’d finished Memories I really didn’t give a fuck. Of the 12 books we read this year it’s the only one I’d describe without qualification as bad.

 Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 is a better book than Memories but it just about falls into a similar category – I started the year wanting to read Pynchon (I’d never read him before) but by the time I’d finished Lot 49 I almost didn’t give a fuck. Again, it’s short (although there are times when it feels like reading Dostoevsky. In Swahili. In the middle of an Antarctic blizzard. And you know what? I reckon that’s how Pynchon wanted it to feel). And it’s frequently funny. But it’s dense and it’s difficult – self-consciously difficult. I don’t mind writers challenging their readers, but dearie me. It’s also self-consciously clever, and I’m not sure which is the greater crime.

I’m a huge – did you get that? HUGE – Richard Dawkins fan, but I’m afraid Unweaving the Rainbow neither lives up to much of his other work, nor to the best of the books we’ve read this year. I’m pretty familiar with where he’s coming from and what’s he’s said and done in the past and I’ve got a pretty damn good idea what he’s trying to do here. It’s just that he doesn’t do it very well.

 The other book that’s in my bottom four is The Reluctant Fundamentalist. And I’m reluctant to put it there but I’m afraid that’s where it belongs. Mohsin Hamid’s second novel is compulsively readable, it’s interesting and engaging but it lacks literary muscle, it doesn’t hang together as well as it should (there’s that romantic subplot that just shouldn’t be there) and it didn’t leave me hungry to read his other work (which at this stage I believe is one other novel).

Most of the rest of what we read, though was pretty damn impressive. Netty is going to give you a top 12. I’m not. Ranking some of these books would be impossible for me, although Memories is easily No.12. Figuring out which of Pynchon and Hamid and Dawkins deserves to be 11 or 10 or 9 is just ridiculous – for me, anyway. Although for old times’ sake I’d probably give Dawkins No.9.

 So heading to the other end of the meme pool (yes, I know it doesn’t make any sense), my top four books would be – in no particular order – Equus, The Dark Prince, Portnoy’s Complaint and probably Due Preparations for the Plague – although tomorrow it might be Slaughterhouse Five, or Vile Bodies. And maybe The Dark Prince doesn’t deserve to be that high, although I’m determined to explore Aunty Iris (ooh err vicar) quite a lot more. An Equal Music and Feast of the Goat were great reads, too, and substantial works of literature. So my year’s reading probably falls into a definite bottom four and a probable top two (Equus, Portnoy) and a bunch of six books that swirl around a lot, with a couple seeming mostly not quite as impressive (Equal Music, Goat) and another couple seeming mostly nearly as impressive (The Black Prince, Due Preps) and yet another two (Slaughterhouse Five, Vile Bodies) that sometimes seem as good as anything else I’ve read all year. See, this is why I find it difficult to see how Netty is going to give you a cast-iron Top 12 list. Seems pretty much ludicrous to me.

 But no doubt she’ll deliver.

 Now, can someone explain to me why I’ve spent twice as much space on the stuff I didn’t like as the stuff I did…?


And Netty’s Top 12 …

By Netty W on Fri, 30 Jan 2009 13:25:13 GMT

I’m a list girl. Always have been. I’ll make a list at the drop of the hat. Could be as mundane as a grocery list. No matter. I just really like lists, OK? But then again, my idea of a perfect afternoon is recataloguing my CD collection, so feel free to take anything I say under advisement …

So, yeah, I thought Andy and I should do an overview of the Reading Challenge 2008, which I just assumed would take the form of a list. So from Andy you get summations, from me you get a list. (Coming soon to a blog near you: The Top 10 Reasons Why Andy Dislikes Lists.)

1. Portnoy’s Complaint – PHILLIP ROTH
Now, there’s every possibility this made the coveted #1 spot because it was the lucky last book we read. Up till December, Slaughterhouse Five was the clubhouse leader for mine. But for sheer readability – not to mention unforgettable characterisation and side-splitting comedic turns – Portnoy’s is top of my pops. Many times throughout the year, Andy and I have said we wanted to explore an author’s oeuvre. I’ll definitely be reading my way through Roth’s in the near future.

2. Slaughterhouse Five – KURT VONNEGUT
Simply one of the most amazing books I’ve ever read, hands down.

3. Vile Bodies – EVELYN WAUGH
I just adored this. Truly memorable characters, riotous satire and a joyous romp of a novel.

4. The Black Prince – IRIS MURDOCH
Unforgettable. The plot and characters are still resonating with me several months down the track.

5. The Feast Of The Goat – MARIO VARGAS LLOSA
For making historical fiction thoroughly enjoyable. For educating me on a subject I had no prior knowledge. And for making me want to go to the Dominican Republic.

6. Due Preparations For The Plague – JANETTE TURNER HOSPITAL
Simply one of the best page-turners I’ve read in yonks.

7. The Reluctant Fundamentalist – MOHSIN HAMID
Clever, intriguing, contemporary; although a little uneven.

8. An Equal Music – VIKRAM SETH
Beautifully written, memorable characters, but with a narrator who gave me the shits pretty much throughout the entire 400+ pages.

9. Unweaving The Rainbow – RICHARD DAWKINS
I didn’t mind this at all, but Dawkins failed to convert me at the end of the day. The only book of the Challenge that I didn’t finish (although it IS still in the pile of books I’ve got on the go, and a reminder to myself that you can’t knock over dense non-fiction in a week).

This being so low down my list might indicate I didn’t like it that much. Not so. I quite enjoyed reading it, but I had more than a few previously outlined reservations. Ultimately its place on this list is simply indicative that there were books I enjoyed far more.

11. The Crying Of Lot 49 – THOMAS PYNCHON
To paraphrase the manager of a hotel at which I once spent a weekend: “You didn’t enjoy staying here and we didn’t enjoy having you.”

12. Memories Of My Melancholy Whores – GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ
Vile bodies, indeed …


There are two other books, not on the Reading Challenge, that I read last year of which I want make mention, because they were, along with The Black Prince, the two that stuck with me most.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was one of the most horrifying pieces of fiction I have ever read, and plunged me into a deep depression that lasted about a week (and I’m very much a glass-half-full type of gal). An unnamed father and his young son make their way across a devastated and desolate USA trying to survive in a post-apocalptic world. A friend of mine commented that not only did she never want to read it again, she didn’t even want a copy of it in her house. You may think I’m advising you not to read it. Au contraire. It MUST be read. But be warned … And make sure you’ve got The Wizard Of Oz, or something, to watch directly afterwards. Otherwise you may find yourself in a catatonic state or in a corner of the room in the foetal position, rocking quietly.

We Need To Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver, is a series of letters from a woman to her estranged husband about their teenage son, who goes on a killing rampage at his high school. It’s simply devastating in so many ways, with plot twists and turns that literally left me gasping. Again, months down the track, Kevin and his family still pop into my head from time to time – mostly at 4am when I’m lying awake unable to sleep. But should it be read? Absolutely.

Finally (yes!), thanks for reading this blog during the past year. I hope we’ve entertained and informed you and that maybe you’ve discovered or uncovered some great books with us along with way. Stay tuned for Reading Challenge 2009 – keep reading our blog, read along with us, post your brickbats and bouquets and tell your friends! But most importantly – just read. It’s one of the great luxuries of life.


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