52 Books in 2013 Challenge: May Update

I fared a little better this month with the reading challenge, although I’m not quite on track (according to Goodreads, anyway – I think I’m doing okay!).

Book 14: HHhH by Laurent Binet

HHhH-Laurent-Binet This was the April title for the book club which I run, and I have to admit that I did not finish it in time for our discussion of it; I struggled with the structure and style of the book, and thought that this was going to be one of those rare occasions where I abandon a book, which is something I didn’t want to do.  So when the weather was suddenly beautiful at the start of the month, I stepped outside and persevered with ‘HHhH’…

I’m glad I did!  When I started this book, the author’s unique writing style seriously irritated me, but by the end I understood why he chose to write this book the way he did.  Firstly, the title stands for Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich which in German means”Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”.  Essentially the book starts off alternating between chapters in a general non-fiction, historical, informative style which tells the story of Operation Anthropoid, and chapters that describe Binet’s research and writing process (with superfluous mentions of whichever beautiful woman he is spending his time with at that moment).  These self-indulgent chapters initially focused on Binet’s appreciation of the architecture, culture and food in the cities he visited for research, and his own anxiety about taking on such a momentous task as writing about an actual assassination of a Nazi leader, Reinhard Heydrich, by two soldiers.  I am sure that I’m not the only one who is intrigued to learn about Nazis, and I was irritated at having the story interrupted constantly by this author telling us about the books he’d read on the subject rather than just using the knowledge he’d gleaned from those books to give us the whole story.  But as the book goes on, it became clear that Binet’s biggest fear is that neither he nor any other writer would ever be able to give the whole story; lives, deaths, romances, grudges, retaliations – people were connected in so many different ways and all had their own role in the stories of the three men at the heart of this book, and Binet seemed to want to tell everyone’s tale, but knew that he had to stick to telling the story of Operation Anthropoid and not digress too much.  Likewise, conjecture was a big problem for him, and one that he addressed at practically every instance that it came up.  It was interesting to read his own evaluation of his writing, and I think that by adding what I would describe as a writing journal alongside the actual subject of the book, it gave me a really good idea of the difficulties that arise in writing about real people and real events; when the author’s instinct is to create drama and punchy dialogue, Binet was always reminded that he must respect the memories of these people (well, maybe not Heydrich) and thus stick to their story without falsifying information to seem more heroic than they were – their true story does that for itself.  One additional observation that threw me and many of my book-club pals was that the book has no page numbers… there’s got to be a reason for it, but I have no idea what that reason is!

Book 15: A Lotus Grows In The Mud by Goldie Hawn

x10166I’ve recently been committing the worst crime known to man – judging books by their covers.  So sue me!  I bought this book as a present for my mum after she specifically asked for it; I don’t know where she heard about it, but she was really keen to get it as a book to take on holiday with her, and I just can’t resist my mum’s smooshy face.  When she finished it, the book sat on the shelf in our living room for about a year before I picked it up, and I was just as keen as she was about it – because I bloody love Goldie Hawn.  Laugh it up, I don’t give a shit, Goldie Hawn is freakin’ awesome.  And the cover of the book is her face, and the writing is all fancy, and… well, that’s basically it.

This is one of the few biographies I have read, as I generally am not interested in learning about the lives of celebrities (I know that it isn’t just celebrities who write autobiographies, but you know what I mean), however after my mum’s recommendation, I was excited about reading Goldie’s.  I have always got the impression from seeing her in interviews that she has this kind of glow about her, and as weird as this sounds that actually could also be said about the book.  Her writing style is nothing special, in fact it is quite simple and straightforward, with the occasional bout of excited description during her travels to India or Russia; on these occasions, she does a great job of taking her sensory experiences and laying them all out to give a thorough picture of where she went.  Her wide-eyed interest in other people is clear from the journeys she made, and she speaks honestly about her relationships, both professional and personal.  This is a book about a woman who has had highs and lows in her career and her personal life, and she is obviously grateful for the opportunities she has had – there is such a strong feeling of happiness and acceptance here.  She mentions the times in her life where things didn’t quite go as planned, including a horrible experience of abuse at the hands of a family friend as a child and numerous other occasions where her looks have got her into difficult and potentially dangerous situations.  But she writes about these experiences without self-pity, and at the end of every single chapter she reflects on the anecdote she has just told or the period of her life which she has just described.  She uses these moments in her life to assess how things got to be the way they are, and kind of turns each one into a lesson for how to move forward.

I’ll admit, there are some kind of hokey bits in there – Goldie is really into spiritual experiences, and she does things like regression therapy that I think are total nonsense, but I didn’t let it change my overall opinion of her.  I still love you, GH!

Book 16: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

9850443Another book-club title here, as chosen by DTSFT’s very own delightful Sarah.  All I knew about this book was that it had a bloody cool cover, but a great story too? COULD IT BE POSSIBLE?

Short answer? Yes. Long answer?  Depends.  I enjoyed this book very much; one of the reasons that I tend to struggle with epic novels (which to me is anything over 400 pages – goodbye, attention span) is that I can’t keep up with the numerous characters that come and go and reappear at random times, where we’re expected to remember details about every single one of them.  The Sisters Brothers manages to use that template of a character – or in this case, a pair of brothers – going on a long journey and encountering a range of diverse and amusing characters on their way, but without getting the reader bogged down in useless information.  Sure, the characters are in turns weird, hilarious, terrifying and tragic – there’s a man who seems to be distraught about something, a boy awaiting his father’s unlikely return, and a strange lady who appears to place a curse on Eli’s head.  At the heart of the book, deWitt tells us the story of Eli and Charlie Sisters, the infamous Sisters Brothers; they are contract killers, but after the violent and unnecessary death of his horse, Eli begins to worry about his future, while Charlie seems unfazed by his brother’s existential crisis, and the two drift apart while still relying on each other to complete this assignment.

The language was particularly interesting to me; a simplistic style that never strays too far into the metaphorical, and dialogue which reflects the direct and plain nature of the two brothers.  Tender moments are treated without too much sentimentality, nor are they give an ironic treatment.  Having read a handful of western books that I borrowed from my grandpa many years ago, I enjoyed the gunslinger moments as well as the more personal thoughts of Eli, and I found that the blunt, first-person descriptions of the more gruesome moments was a good reflection of how, despite having this growing existential crisis, Eli has become accustomed to this life as a violent outlaw after all these years.  I’ll be interested to see what my fellow book-club members will think of this one!

Book 17: if nobody speaks of remarkable things by Jon McGregor

if_nobody_speaksThis is a book that I actually picked up at the book swap I organised last month, and had it recommended to me by one of the lovely regulars.  Another one with alternating chapters, the book concerns one afternoon on a street in Northern England (although as far as I can tell this detail doesn’t really have much to do with the story, but I may have overlooked something), where a tragic event takes place.  I have this bad habit of flicking through a book when I first get it, hoping but also not hoping to catch a glimpse of the turning point in the book, thus ruining it. I know, stupid right?  Anyway, I did that with this book and luckily didn’t stumble across anything that could ruin it for me – because the chapters which describe the day of the event do, well, just that.  The author describes everything in great detail, without giving names to the characters – just house numbers and distinctive descriptions for them to become known by, such as the woman with the red hair, the man with the neatly combed moustache, and so on.  I have read other reviews about this book, and they all seemed quite divided; some loved the poetic prose and praised the way that little recognisable details of every day life took on significance with his descriptions, whereas others found it to be a drag to have every second broken down for them in excruciating detail.  I find myself somewhere in the middle with this book.  The alternate chapters are set in the current day and focus on one of the people present at the tragic event which is said to have happened three years before, a young student who discovers that she is pregnant, and deals with her relationship with her mother as well as her memory of the events that took place.

I was underwhelmed by the actual event, which is more of a comment on my own expectations than anything else I suppose.  I don’t think the purpose of this book is to tell a particularly spectacular story; the woman who discovers her pregnancy finds herself combing over every last detail of what happened on the day of the event, and trying to figure out if there was any way that anyone could have foreseen that event, but all she can do is look back – and this is what McGregor allows us to do, look back at every possible detail with the knowledge that something is going to happen.  That fact that we can’t figure it out until it is just about to happen impacts on how we read both the story lines.

Book 18: The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway

oldmanandtheseaMy last May title is a book I have wanted to read for a long time, largely because it is a modern classic and also because (don’t judge me) it’s parodied in a Simpsons episode.  I don’t care what you think of me by now, you should already know that.  I have never read any Hemingway, and I guess this is as good a place to start as any, especially since it is relatively short and I already have it on my Kindle software on my Mac…

This is the story of Santiago, an old man (no shit?!) who has had an unlucky streak of 84 days without catching a fish.  In fact, his apprentice has been warned by his family to stop going out with Santiago on his boat because the man himself is considered to be bad luck, but this doesn’t stop him from spending time with him.  Santiago goes out to sea on the 85th day, intent on catching something, and that’s just what he does – he hooks a fish that is so big and strong that he can’t reel it in, and ends up allowing it to tow his boat for more than a day.  They end up far out at sea, engaged in a sort of battle of wits, and while Santiago struggles determinedly to keep a hold of this fish and resolves to kill it, he speaks aloud to himself of his respect for the creature.

I don’t know much about Hemingway’s writing, and I feel like that’s a crime for some reason.  The simplicity of the story was endearing, particularly what happens in the last third of the book, which had me (much like Santiago) saying out loud to no-one in particular “NOOOO!” when the sharks arrive at his boat.  As in The Sisters Brothers, I appreciated the directness of the language, and the occasional allusion to bigger things.  There’s a phrase in the book where Hemingway describes a noise that Santiago makes, as “ just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.” I loved that line, and though it was quite a glaring biblical reference that seemed sort of shoe-horned in to the text, it stuck with me.

So that’s my May update – I’m catching up to my target and making up for lost time, so hopefully I’ll have another good reading month in June!

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