Archive for the ‘Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge 2015’ Category

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In which Netty runs the rule over 2015’s reading …

February 29, 2016

As usual, here we are, wrapping up another big year of ANRC books, from 2015 – in March 2016. You’d never guess that Andy and me have spent most of our professional lives working to strict deadlines, would you?

woman-reading-a-book

All jokes aside, we kind of got derailed a bit in the last couple of months thanks to unforeseeable Big. Life. Shit. But, as Grace Slick once said, it’s a new dawn. So without any further ado, here’s my annual top 10* best-of list for last year.

(You might be wondering about the presence of that asterisk. For the past couple of years, Andy and I have taken off the first two months of the year, reducing our annual read from 12 books to 10. Late last year, in a comedy of errors, I was left high and dry with a back order of one of the year’s books – King of The Badgers by Phillip Hensher – that never arrived. Seriously. I’ve had this book on order since last October. Andy, meanwhile, had it done and dusted literally months ago. So hence we never got around to blogging on it. Andy might have something more to say about this when he does his summing up.)

9. Lolita – VLADIMIR NABOKOV

Well, there’s usually one stinker in each year’s batch, and for mine the 2015 award goes to Nabokov’s Lolita. All the top-notch writing and clever plot twists in the world can’t make up for the novel’s basic premise: a manipulative late thirtysomething bloke having a sexual relationship with his young teenage step-daughter. No thanks.

8. Atomised – MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ

Ever wondered what the future holds? In the view of Frenchman Houellebecq, not much at all. Or, in the Australian vernacular, we’ll all be rooned. A dark, bleak, unremitting read on life with an equally pessimistic take on the future. One for the masochists, or maybe the sadists. If you insist on reading it, make sure you do so with a stiff chaser of anti-depressants at the ready.

7. Babel-17 – SAMUEL R. DELANEY

A modern sci-fi classic in which drop-dead gorgeous, 20-something Rydra Wong, a multi-linguist poet and space captain, unravels the coded mystery of Babel-17, brings an end to a decades-long intergalactic war, and finds true love out there in space to boot. Trust me, there’s a lot of fun to be had here if you’re willing to suspend all earthly beliefs and go with the galactic flow.

6. The New Yorker Stories – ANN BEATTIE

Forty-eight of the best from American short-story maestro Beattie, all originally published in the venerable New Yorker magazine and stretching across three decades. With superbly drawn characters and a razor-sharp eye for minutiae, Beattie is up there with the greats. Including – yes – the greatest of them all, Raymond Carver. This is a must-read for all fans of short-form fiction.

5. Death In The Family – KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD

Far less addictive than crack – no matter what Zadie Smith says. But the first installment of Knausgaard’s six-volume memoir My Struggle is a mostly fascinating account of a Norwegian boy growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s, in the shadow of an uneasy relationship with his father. The aftermath of the death of the Knausgaard patriarch is some of the most compelling and affecting prose you will ever read.

4. The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie – MURIEL SPARKS

Set in a Scottish all-girls’ secondary school in the 1930s, Sparks’ novella tells the riveting tale of a highly influential teacher who, ironically, is eventually brought undone by the very group of girls (“the Brodie set”) into whose lives she ingratiates herself. Is she a monster or merely misunderstood? Probably a bit of both, actually.

3. Of A Boy – SONYA HARTNETT

The disturbing tale of a late 1970s childhood tragedy set in the Australian suburbs, Hartnett’s award-winning Of A Boy is a magnificent book – sublimely structured, beautifully written – that, once read, will never be forgotten.

2. And The Band Played On – RANDY SHILTS

My post on this weighty, exhaustive account of the advent and timeline of AIDS in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s opened with the line: “This is the most important book you will never read”. Stories from those who were on the frontline of the most significant disease of the latter half of the 20th century – the patients, the medical practitioners caring for them, the scientists racing to solve the puzzle of this retrovirus, and the many levels of bureaucracy standing in the way of all of them. Essential reading.

1. Half Of A Yellow Sun – CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE

In my original post, I noted that Half Of A Yellow Sun might just end up being the best book I would read all year. How prescient of me! Adichie’s sprawling, harrowing account of one family’s life before, during and after the Nigerian civil war of the 1960s is truly, absolutely great fiction. If you only read one book from this list, make it this one*. (*But if you could do me a teeny tiny favour, please also read And The Played On. I can barely split them, but it’s Yellow Sun by a nose at the final post).

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In which Netty enters Knausgaard’s struggle on dual levels …

February 24, 2016

Definition of irony: reading and blogging about a book called A Death In The Family being delayed by, well, a death in the family.

knaus-coverTrue story, folks. You should have been reading this post in November 2015 rather than February 2016, but sometimes that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

I’d been wanting to read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle books for a while now. A literary sensation in his native Norway – and not always for straight-forward reasons – translation has slowed down the six-volume series’ migration to an English-speaking (nay, reading) audience. Hence, book five is due to be released early this year – despite Knausgaard’s final instalment in the series having been completed and released years ago at home in Scandinavia.

In Norway, this autobiographical series is known as Min Kamp (even the title, with its similarities to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, caused problems with potential German publishers early on). A published author with a novel under his belt, Knausgaard, then 40, originally started writing his memoirs in the late noughties in an attempt to shake off a case of writer’s block and was not intending to publish them. He showed the finished product to family members, some of whom took umbrage with the contents and portrayal of the clan, forcing some revisions before the eventual final publication.

This is understandable as A Death In The Family is a deeply personal, no-holds-barred memoir. But as unflinchingly hard as Knausgaard is on his family, he reserves his harshest criticism for himself. Still, in a small-ish country of less than five million – and with the author’s family the only Knausgaards who reside there – there was plenty of fuel for the ensuing media fire. Indeed, the inner back sleeve of my 2014 Vintage edition features a quote from the author: “It never occurred to me that it might cause problems – I was just telling the truth, wasn’t I? But I was also being very naïve. I sent a copy to everyone involved before the first volume was published, and then I discovered how difficult this was going to be. It was like hell.”

Nevertheless the series has attracted wide acclaim, with Knausgaard having been dubbed “the Norwegian Proust” (note: never having read Proust, I cannot comment further). English author Zadie Smith – not a writer whose work I enjoy – is one of a slew of Knausgaard’s literary contemporaries who have fallen over themselves to praise his work, famously comparing the My Struggle books to being as addictive as crack. The man himself says they are a record of the “banalities and humilations” of his life.

Andy notes a few issues with the translation in his blog – something we touch on pretty much every time we review a translated work. But overall I reckon the tone – in all its unevenness and the jumping back and forth on the narrative timeline – can’t be too dissimilar to the original. I found the lack of chronology a little annoying – and that’s not something that usually bothers me. The abrupt shifts in the timeline – especially in the first part – particularly bugged me, and I found the long ruminations on the writing process (which admittedly are probably integral to the concept of the series as a whole) at times yawn-inducing. I wanted story and flow. I had to wait till the second part to get it.

Andy also notes a familiarity with the childhood and adolescent experiences of Knausgaard, who is not much older than both Andy and myself. It’s a growing-up-in-the-seventies-and-eighties thing that will particularly resonate with Gen X readers, regardless of their place of origin.

My partner-in-crime did a very good job of summing up the plot line in his post, so I shall be pointing you in that direction rather rehashing it here. I encourage you to read it. In short, the younger boy of two grows up in Norway, goes to school, goes through his oft-estranged parents’ break-up, falls in and out of adolescent-esque love, joins bands, starts writing, publishes a novel and tries to write another one, gets married once, then twice, has a few kids (OK, three), moves to Sweden.

And, of course, he experiences the death of his father with whom he has always had a difficult relationship, for reasons that are not always clear. But certainly the manner in which the death itself reveals a hornet’s nest of familial issues could not help but colour a memoir looking back on the author’s early life. Particularly by the book’s end I was wondering if the rancor and bitterness of Knausgaard’s feelings towards his father that were bubbling under the surface in part one were the result of what transpires in part two, rather than something that had always been present. It’s hard to tell – and whether that be the fault of an inexperienced writer or a clumsy translation, I could but guess. The reader will ultimately be the judge of that.

In summation, I was expecting to really, really love this book. Instead I merely liked it a lot. I will definitely be seeking out book two (A Man In Love) and will take it from there (I’m left wondering what fresh meat Knausgaard can bring to the table in book three – Boyhood Island – that he hasn’t already plundered in book one).

And who knows? One day I might even get around to reading Proust. I said, might …

PS: Stay tuned, faithful blog readers (all two of you) as Andy and I belatedly sum up our unexpectedly truncated reading year of 2015 and unveil what is to come this year. A couple of months late, admittedly, but yeah, bite me (oooh look! Two bites!) (Insert winking emoticon here.)

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In which Netty reads And The Band Played On … and The Chimp And The River

December 30, 2015

This is the most important book that you will never read.

shilts-coverBack in 1981, a young, openly gay journalist named Randy Shilts got a position at the San Francisco Chronicle. His round was “gay issues”, in a city that was more heavily involved in gay liberation and its civil rights than any other in the United States. A city in which two in five adult males were openly gay, and to which about 5000 gay men were relocating every year. Not to mention gay tourism, which attracted thousands of men from all over the world to its precincts, including its infamous bath houses.

The other thing that was happening in San Francisco in 1981 – and, on the other side of the country, in New York City – was that gay men were presenting at their GPs and at hospitals with enlarged lymph nodes, serious pneumonia-like symptoms and ugly skin rashes. And then they started dying.

In the prologue to his book And The Band Played On, first published in 1987, Shilts writes: “AIDS did not just happen to America – it was allowed to happen by an array of institutions, all of which failed to perform their appropriate tasks to safeguard the public health.” And later on: “The story of politics, people, and the AIDS epidemic is, ultimately, a tale of courage as well as cowardice, compassion as well as bigotry, inspiration as well as venality, and redemption as well as despair.”

And over six years, and 600 pages, Shilts documents the AIDS crisis from every imaginable angle – political, personal, scientific, bureaucratic. I seriously doubt there could be a better, more thorough book written on this subject. Its breadth, scope and the meticulous attention to detail is breathtaking. Shilts had access to every major player in the scientific and political communities and no stone is left unturned in the recounting of this devastating period of western medical history.

Shilts opens his book in Zaire in 1976, where Danish doctor Grethe Rask – a specialist in tropical diseases who had worked in Africa for the past decade – is sick and getting sicker. By the following year, aged 47, she would be dead, officially of a rare pneumonia. Nine years later, tests on her blood would reveal she had contracted HIV.

From there, Shilts sets the scene in San Francisco and NYC in the late 1970s, giddy on its giant strides in the hard-fought battle for gay rights and liberation. Presciently, a few members of the community – such as New York playwright Larry Kramer – were sounding early alarm bells and despairing that the battle had degenerated into “fighting for the prerogative of gays to bump like bunnies”.

In both cities, doctors were alarmed at the raft of health issues developing amongst the male gay community; in the early 1980s the medical community referred to AIDS as “gay pneumonia” or “gay cancer”. Add to that in the US, the Republicans, led by new president Ronald Reagan, had just come to power; Reagan had foreshadowed – and then set about implementing – serious budgetary cuts that affected medicine and science and their various bodies.

A perfect storm was brewing.

By 1981 the so-called “gay pneumonia” was turning up in intravenous drug users in New York City. By 1982 it was first detected in hemophiliacs. But it was still causing the most havoc in the male gay community, where everybody knew somebody who was getting sick and inevitably dying – yet few were changing their behaviours, even as their doctors were warning that this disease was being spread through unprotected sex. Those same doctors were also initially castigated for suggesting it also looked like it was a blood-borne disease. They also quickly realised this was a disease with a lengthy incubation period; that it could lay dormant in a person for years, rather than the months originally thought.

Meanwhile the medical and scientific bodies were fighting for funding and resources, and fighting against each other in the race to be the first to claim credit for isolating and naming this new epidemic. The media was largely ignoring what was fast becoming the biggest health crisis of the 20th century. And everybody was caught up in the prevailing political correctness – “don’t offend the gays and don’t inflame the homophobes”.

Collectively, this stunning display of stonewalling, denial and sheer ineptitude – which lasted for more than half a decade and criss-crossed all public and political spheres – would cost hundreds, then thousands, then millions of people their lives.

A San Francisco man who addressed a series of government hearings in 1983 summed it up thus: “There is no reason this disease cannot be conquered … this is not a political issue. This is a health issue. This is not a gay issue. This is a human issue … I came here today in the hope that my epitaph would not read that I died of red tape.”

It’s enough to make you want to bang your head against a brick wall and weep.

By 1984 the retrovirus that causes AIDS had been isolated. Later that year it was concluded that the virus had originated from equatorial Africa, lying dormant in primates until it was transferred to humans. “As efficient a virus as I’ve ever seen,” noted Dr Robert Gallo, the American biomedical researcher who was eventually credited as the “co-discoverer” of HIV.

And by the time it was announced that American movie star Rock Hudson was dying from AIDS-related complications in July 1985 – which is considered a turning point for the US at large to finally sit up and take notice – more than 4300 of more than 9000 people with the virus had died in that country alone.

How relevant is it to today? Well, they say that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. And that, for me, is the intrinsic lesson of And The Band Played On.

Also, vale to its author. Shilts died in 1994, aged 42, of complications from the HIV virus, which he didn’t ­­learn he’d contracted until after he’d finished writing his book. Yet another casualty that might not have happened and that certainly didn’t need to happen.

chimp-coverPostscript: We also read American science writer David Quammen’s The Chimp And The River, which came out earlier this year. This small book confirms the speculation from two decades ago – that AIDS was transferred from chimpanzees to humans in Africa at the beginning of the previous century in a “spillover”. Similarly it’s an essential read on this devastating pandemic, which, while no longer an automatic death sentence (not in the wealthy west, at any rate) still kills more than a million people every year and infects many more.

This fight is far from over.

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In which Netty does not discover the female Carver (again), but is pretty damn happy with discovering Ann Beattie instead …

October 12, 2015

I must say, we do love a good short story here at Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge. And during the eight-odd years of this Challenge, we have read our way through some of the finest proponents of the art-form that the late 20th century has to offer.

A portrait of the author as, well, herself ...

A portrait of the author as, well, herself …

Although now, when I think about it, I realise that mostly we have read white, middle-class, American women. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Are short stories a medium to which female writers are most drawn? I’d need to see some stats on that. I do love a good stat set.

But as always, when we are talking short stories, the omnipresent elephant in the room must be addressed first. Andy and I read Raymond Carver early in this Challenge – so early that it was on our original, short-lived blogsite that now no longer exists, so unfortunately I can’t link to the effusive praise which we both heaped upon the bloke at the time.

Carver is, and may well always be, the first and last point of reference in this genre. He is so far ahead of the game that it will always be Carver first, daylight second. Well, maybe that’s a little unfair. Other writers get close. They can’t surpass him, but they get close.

Ann Beattie gets close.

I had never heard of this American writer when Andy first suggested her for this year’s ANRC. Beattie, now 68, has nine short story collections and eight novels to her name, a body of work that spans 40 years. She has a lengthy relationship with venerable magazine The New Yorker, which has been publishing her short stories since 1974. The aptly named The New Yorker Stories is a chronologically ordered collection that starts in 1974 and finishes, 48 stories later, in 2006; the collection itself was first published in 2010.

In his post, Andy referenced other white, middle-class American female writers that we have read, for comparison’s sake. The only one on whom we violently disagree is Mary Gaitskill (I can’t stand her, Andy thinks she’s some sort of second coming); also Andy had little time for Lydia Davis, who I quite enjoyed. Otherwise we see roughly eye to eye – for mine, Lorrie Moore is probably still the pick of the bunch, but Beattie is roughly her equal. For the record, Flannery O’Connor is also all sorts of wonderful, but she was far from middle class and yes, she’s dead. I still don’t think that excludes her from the broader conversation, however!

Short story writers have an eye for detail that sets them apart from their longer-form counterparts, and often a brevity that necessarily accompanies the genre, although length is not an issue here. Beattie’s short stories are like miniature time capsules, beautifully summing up the era in which they are set – an era, as Andy notes, that seems to broadly follows the age of the author herself (she was 27 in 1974, when the first short story in this collection was originally published). For me it was often quite jarring to be reminded of the ways and means that were perfectly acceptable in the 1970s (smoking around children during a meal, for example).

Beattie is also an expert at capturing the minutiae of relationships and peeling back the layers of something that seems quite ordinary and unremarkable on the surface to reveal its dark, unsettling, or troubled core. In doing so she reminds us of the tensions and angst that bubble under the otherwise civilised veneer of our fellow human beings. Not all of these stories have nice, neatly wrapped, bow-on-top conclusions – but nor would you want them to.

I love a short story that is resolved but yet isn’t – that is, one that keeps me wondering, days, maybe even months, down the track. The best short stories will satisfy you but also keep you guessing – it’s a very fine, delicate balance to strike; few get it right, and few again get it right consistently. It’s a credit to Beattie that nine times out of 10 she falls on the right side of this ledger. Her short stories are clever, touching, wry, humorous – everything you want in the form, really.

I could single out just about every one of this stories, but instead I am going to use just one as an example. It’s not the best here, not by a long shot, and it’s more a rough sketch than a fully formed entity. But I think it perfectly illustrates Beattie’s schtick. Sam, a slightly rag-bag bloke, is out in the country with his brother, his former sister-in-law and their young daughter when they spy a snake among the rocks. While her parents are issuing their daughter with the usual litany of warnings you’d expect, Sam starts telling his niece about snakes. “They have feet, but they shed them in the summer,” he asserts. “If you ever see tiny shoes in the woods, they belong to the snakes.” “Tell her the truth,” implores his ex-sister-in-law. “Imagination is better than reality,” Sam replies. See? In less than a page, Beattie has set up the relationships between all three adult protagonists and told us everything we need to know about their characters. In less than a page.

And, more or less, that’s what she does in the other 47 stories in this collection. It’s quite the accomplishment.

So if, like me, your answer the question “Ann Beattie” was “Who?”, you could do worse than to grab yourself a copy of The New Yorker Stories (the editors at that magazine certainly know their shit when it comes to authors) and dive in. Especially if you’re a fan of short stories. Beattie is an awesome writer – and she deserves an audience in this country.

OK, she’s not Carver. Moot point. No one is. But she gets close.

And sometimes close is close enough.

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The New Yorker Stories -Andy and Ann share a moment (48 moments, to be precise)

October 2, 2015

So here we are in October, about to discuss August’s book, which was supposed to be some other month’s book, while December’s book is now September’s book because – nevermind. Ah, the joys of blogging.

Ann Beattie was born in 1947, which means she turned 18 in 1965, which sounds like a grand year to be turning 18. I turned 18 in 1987. Fuck that for a game of soldiers.

Apparently early in her career (mid 70s to early 80s) there was talk of a “Beattie Generation”. Beattie Generation – Beat Generation. Do you see what they did there? There wasn’t really a generation of writers who emulated or imitated Beattie’s style, and in fact she has placed herself firmly within the (male-dominated, obvs) American tradition that includes Hemingway and Carver, writers that both Netty and I hugely enjoyed. And for both of us Raymond Carver remains the high-water mark for short-story writers over eight years of the reading challenge.

Ann Beattie, though, is seriously up there.

newyorkerThe New Yorker Stories is a 500-page-plus collection featuring every story Beattie had published in The New Yorker from 1974 to 2006. And it’s a hugely impressive accomplishment. There were a handful of times – actually less than a handful, since by my perverse reckoning a “handful” is exactly five, and I can only think of two or maybe three – when I finished a story and thought OK, that did not work. But the majority are quietly spectacular.

Of the contemporary white, female, American short-story writers Netty and I have read over the past few years (Lorrie Moore, Mary Gaitskill, Lydia Davis, Beattie – there’s also Flannery O’Connor, who was awesome, but she doesn’t quite count here because, y’know, she’s kind of old n dead n shit) I probably enjoyed Gaitskill a little more than Beattie, but for arguably puerile reasons. Beattie is easily the best writer of the four (again, not counting O’Connor, because, y’know…). This may seem simplistic, but: Beattie does first and third person and she can do both superbly (although if memory serves she never attempts second person, which some of the other writers mentioned might). She mostly does female voice, and most of those female voices are roughly the age she was at the time she was writing; but she can do female voices at different ages, and she can do male voice, at various ages, and be convincing at all of it. And of course she can do past tense and present tense and mix them up, but she can also, more subtly and delicately than many, blend the present with the past, ironically but compassionately contrasting a grim, regretful today with a sunnier, hopeful yesterday.

And while there may never have been a Beattie Generation, she has for the four decades represented in this collection been a wry, ironic observer of her own generation – middle-class America, liberated or debilitated (or both) by the sixties, fond of their cigarettes and their marijuana and their booze and their music and their dogs and their infidelities and their divorces and their ex-wives or ex-husbands and their ill-judged decisions to shake life up and move elsewhere; rarely terribly fond of their children (Is that harsh? That might be a bit harsh. Actually sometimes not that fond of their exes, either. Or their neighbours).

Unlike many American short-story writers (and I have Gaitskill in my sights when I say this) Beattie is not afraid to experiment with the length of her stories. Gaitskill sometimes gives the impression that she has a word count to meet and by christ she will meet it. Beattie’s stories, like Carver’s, although let’s not raise the Lish word, are all over the shop. She has a story to tell and she tells it, and when the story is told the story ends. Lorrie Moore and Mary Gaitskill don’t necessarily pad, but… well, maybe they pad. And Lydia Davis is basically incomprehensible to me, no matter how long or short her fucking stories are. No, sorry, not incomprehensible, just… irrelevant. I seem to remember Netty asking, after we’d read Lorrie Moore’s stories (which are mostly very impressive) if we’d found the female Carver. The question now strikes me as slightly misogynist – and I’m supposed to be the literary sexist of this challenge. As a writer – female, male or otherwise – Carver trumps Beattie. But you know what? Only just.

Half a dozen recommendations: Dwarf House (bizarre, hilarious, touching), Colorado (ironic and insightful), The Lawn Party (cynical yet moving), The Burning House (best last two pars of a short story you’ll ever read), Home to Marie (great plot twist less than a third of the way through), The Confidence Decoy (last story, still resonating).

Top stuff.

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In which Netty tells you why you should drop everything you are doing right now and read Half Of A Yellow Sun …

September 2, 2015

Half Of A Yellow Sun is the best book I have read so far this year. Hell, come year’s end, it may end up being the best book I have read all year.

half-of-a-yellow-sunIt is the second novel by Nigerian-born author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, published in 2006, and set in the 1960s before, during and immediately after the Nigerian civil war. Until now, if you’d said to me, “Biafra”, I would have replied, “Jello” (turns out the lead singer of The Dead Kennedys did name himself after the fledgling country that formed out of the Nigerian civil war and existed for a brief but extremely tumultuous three years from 1967 to 1970).

I’m not sure if it’s a blight on my public school education, or on me, that I was completely clueless about this period of modern African history until now. Towards the end of this novel, one of the main characters, English expat Richard – who has started reporting from Biafra for the international press – meets two American foreign correspondents. Richard, who has been in the country since its inception and even considers himself Biafran, is dismayed and repulsed by the pair. Their questions centre on news of one dead white expat and they show little interest in the tens of thousands of black locals who have lost their lives, most in horrific circumstances.

“Richard would write about this, the rule of Western journalism: One hundred dead black people equal one dead white person,” Adichie writes, pointedly. It is a “rule” that still plays out today, across all forms of western media, and ultimately that may be why someone like me – caucausian, western, and well-educated – still remains ignorant of a tragedy like Biafra. I am horrified and chastened in equal measure.

But let’s go back to the beginning.

Half Of A Yellow Sun’s 400-plus pages are split into four sections – the early 1960s and the late 1960s, and these are spliced together. Which is just as well, because the late 1960s are such a harrowing read that it was a relief to be momentarily spared halfway through and transported back to the pre-war period. Adichie also uses this as a device to explain events not fully elaborated upon in the initial time shift. It is told from the point of view, in a third-person narrative, of three of the main characters, Ugwu, Olanna, and the aforementioned Richard.

As the novel opens, young village boy Ugwu has just taken up the post of houseboy to Odenigbo, a mathematics professor and socialist-leaning intellectual. Odenigbo soon persuades his partner Olanna, a sociology professor, to leave London and live with him in Nsukka. Olanna is the daughter of Chief Ozobia, a highly influential businessman of dubious professional and personal morals based in Lagos. She has a twin sister, Kainene, who moves to Port Harcourt to look after her father’s business interests with her partner Richard, an Englishman and would-be author who is interested in Igbo-Ukwu art.

The two early 1960s sections of the book explore the relationships between the main characters, and the many secondary characters, and set the domestic and political scene in Nigeria during that period, hinting at the developing turmoil between the Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, and Fulani people that eventually explodes into civil war.

No spoilers from me on the late 1960s sections of the novel, except to say that amongst all the many, hideous horrors of conflict, Adichie also manages to capture the sheer banality of life during wartime – the desperation and exhaustion of trying to find adequate food, water and shelter, of the daily task of merely trying to stay alive. She paints vivid portraits that will stick in your head long after you’ve read the last page. And which may make you look at the nightly news grabs of current wars in a very different light.

There is no doubt Adichie is writing about what she knows – the history of her family and its larger community, indeed, the country. An Igbo born in 1977 – seven years after the war ended – she was raised in Nsukka, the university town where the pre-war sections of this book are set, the daughter of academics. The novel is dedicated to her grandparents – her grandmothers survived the war, but her grandfathers did not. In doing so, she has created a remarkable document of a conflict and time that she doesn’t want relegated to the footnotes of African history. One day we can only hope that another writer will do the same for Rwanda.

Andy half-jokes in his blog that he is almost out of therapy after reading Half Of A Yellow Sun, and I can definitely see his point. This novel will take you on an uncomfortable journey made all the more so for knowing that what is being written – and Adichie does not hold back on the horrific, graphic reality of this war – actually happened. DO NOT LET THIS DETER YOU. Great fiction, great novels, should sometimes be uncomfortable, difficult and emotionally draining. This is not a bad thing: this is what promotes our personal knowledge and, hopefully, our compassion and empathy. After all, as the adage goes, those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

In the afterword of my edition, Adichie speaks about finding an “emotional truth” in fiction writing; she also notes that she factually depicts the central events: “If fiction is indeed the soul of history, then I was equally committed to the fiction and the history”. She achieves it, and then some. This is beautifully and meticulously crafted writing from an astonishingly talented young writer (she was in her very late twenties when it was published). Like Andy, I intend to read her other books (she has written two and a collection of short stories).

You must read this book. You just must. That is all.

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In which Netty reads Houellebeq’s Atomised and wonders what’s French for “not my cup of tea” …

July 29, 2015

So when you think about France, what comes to mind? For me, it’s the Eiffel Tower, baguettes, jaunty berets, the River Seine, Champagne, cheese, the Champs D’Elysee … so basically, landmarks and the culinary. All the usual clichés.

Not necessarily someone you'd expect to have a ripsnortingly fun night out with ...

Not necessarily someone you’d expect to have a ripsnortingly fun night out with …

Andy says it was his idea to read Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, but I do recall I was equally enthusiastic – the French author having been reasonably high up my to-read list for a while now. (It’s a pretty long list.) I was under the impression – not incorrect – that he was the enfant terrible of modern literature in that country; to my mind a French version of, say, Will Self. Or Chuck Palahniuk. I was sort of right – Houellebecq, to this reader, lacks the dark, sly wit and audacious verve, respectively, of the former pair.

Or maybe’s it my old bete noir – the whole “lost in translation” thing (for the record, Atomised was translated by Irishman Frank Wynne, who shared the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award with Houellebecq for this work.)

But I suspect not. Because there is something else that springs to mind when one thinks about all things Francophile – and that is Satre-styled existentialism. There’s more than a bit of that going on in these pages. But, you know, they’re French. It’s in their DNA, non?

Actually, Sartre has been tossed around by Andy and me as a possible ANRC candidate for a few years now. He usually ends up getting rejected – by me – on the grounds that it’ll be too hard. I attempted to read Nausea at high school but gave up. Perhaps it would have been easier if I’d tried to read it in English (boom! tish!)

OK, so we’ve established Andy didn’t like the book, and didn’t even hate it enough to like it. You can read his hilarious put-down here. As for me, I wouldn’t say I particularly liked it either – I found it quite dark, unremittingly bleak, incorporating an extremely pessimistic world view and devoid of hope for mankind in the future. Now, that is not necessarily a deal-breaker for me – after all, I am a HUGE fan of The Cure – but this novel left me feeling a bit depressed. For about a nanosecond – I’ve always been a glass half-full kinda gal. But if you’re not, either don’t read it, or up your Xanax prescription before you do. Which does kind of defeat the purpose.

Interestingly, Houellebeq’s mother Lucie Ceccaldi, from whom he is estranged, published her own book in 2008 (Atomised, his second novel, was published in 2001) to publicly correct perceived wrongs in the latter about the character she believes to be based on herself.

It appears she’s not off target on that assumption. Because Houellebeq has not only given one of his two main protagonists his name, he has also given the character his own back story. And in Atomised, the mother “character” (who shares Houellebeq’s mother’s surname) does not come out of things smelling like les fleurs, to put it mildly. In fact, she’s a selfish, pleasure-seeking narcissist only too keen to offload her two young sons in pursuit of her own desires. Houellebeq skewers 1960s hippie culture, its forebears and its offspring at every given opportunity throughout these pages. Some people go to a shrink to sort out the mess of their upbringing; others air their family’s dirty laundry among the pages of a book. No prizes for guessing into which camp the Ceccaldi/Houellebeqs fall …

Back to the book then. It is essentially the story of two half-brothers, Michel Djerzinski and Bruno Clement, set against the backdrop of the mid-to-late 20th century, and then, in the epilogue, casting forward into the future. As the novel opens, Michel, a fortysomething molecular biologist at the forefront of his field, is having something of a mid-life crisis, so he takes a year off his position to “think”. His older half-brother Bruno (they share the same mother), a divorced ex-schoolteacher, is also in the throes of a mid-life crisis, one which he is handling in the more traditional way.

The brothers, both of whom were brought up by their respective grandmothers – Michel by his paternal grandmother, Bruno by his maternal grandmother – do not meet until it is engineered by their parents when the boys are in their mid-teens. Extremely different in personality, theirs is an uneasy, yet consistent brotherly relationship.

Neither man has a successful personal life. Michel is essentially asexual, not having lost his virginity until his 30s, despite having had a great, largely one-sided, unconsummated teenage love affair with Annabelle, who reappears in his adult life. Bruno, meanwhile, is a sex-obsessed libertine who rarely has his interest reciprocated, despite the number of new-age sex camps he attends – until he meets his match in Christiane. But by this advanced stage of the book, the reader can guess – correctly, and I don’t think that’s a spoiler – that there can be no happy endings for these characters.

Late in the novel one character tells Michel: “In the end, life breaks your heart. Doesn’t matter how brave you are, or how reserved, or how much you’ve developed a sense of humour … there’s just the cold, the silence and the loneliness. You might say, after that, there’s only death”. And therein lies the raison d’etre of this novel: essentially, that life is fucked, people are fucked, and we’re all going to die. That’s it – it’s a joke without a punchline.

I don’t know – call me a perpetual optimist, but I prefer at least a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel.

Then, as Andy points out, Atomised gets all weird and meta and futuristic and science fiction-ey, and the reader learns the truth about Michel’s life’s work in molecular biology and where science may eventually lead the human race.

Look, I’m sure this book is someone’s idea of fun, to quote the aforementioned Will Self, but it wasn’t mine. But, you know, whateves. Books can be a crap shoot sometimes. C’est la vie.