January 2011 Reading: One Day, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, The Big Sleep, Wolf Hall, The Corrections

One Day by David Nicholls (2009)

Normally, the fact that so many people were recommending a book would immediately turn me off it (I resisted Harry Potter and Twilight for as long as humanly possible), but for once I decided to get over my hype allergy and settle down to read One Day.  In about one day.  It’s an absorbing and genuine novel – the main characters, while not always likeable, are so realistically drawn that the somewhat arch premise (we meet the protagonists, Emma and Dexter, on the same day, the 15th July, over a period of twenty years) actually works very well.  Its depiction of the changing social climate of Britain, while never heavy-handed, adds depth to what might otherwise be a frothy will-they-won’t-they story.  An engaging novel that doesn’t presume to take up too much of your time.
The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom (2003)

The premise of this book is pretty self-explanatory.  Heaven is presented as a place, or series of places, in which you meet five people who were in your life (whether you knew them or not) and they help you to make sense of your life. The main character is Eddie, who, at the novel’s opening, dies on his 83rd birthday at Ruby Pier, where he has worked for most of his life, trying to save a little girl during an accident on one of the rides.

There is a childish ‘magic’ quality to his journey as he is taken from place to place which I found a bit grating – the sky changes colour, he is whooshed to his next destination, almost as if he is flying:
“A sudden wind lifted Eddie, and he spun like a pocket watch on the end of a chain.” 
The least whimsical parts of the book concern Eddie’s army days.  There is a certain amount of moralising:
“Young men go to war.  Sometimes because they have to, sometimes because they want to.  Always, they feel they are supposed to.  This comes from the sad, layered stories of life, which over the centuries have seen courage confused with picking up arms, and cowardice confused with laying them down”
but he paints a vivid and compelling picture of life as a soldier, especially in terms of the emotions experienced.
Albom is good with emotion.  Perhaps a little too good – some may find this book a little too cloying, too sentimental, though on the whole it avoids falling into that trap because of its quirky characters and the truth behind the sentiment.  It is a book from which comfort can be drawn: as the novel ends, Eddie waits his turn to tell others the ‘secret of heaven’:
“That each affects the other and the other affects the next, and the world is full of stories, but the stories are all one.”
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939)
I am not a big crime fiction reader, and to be honest, I had my doubts about whether or not I would enjoy Chandler’s work, mostly because I knew nothing about it.  Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised, above all by the protagonist.  Philip Marlowe, the detective, is a constantly intriguing, frequently amusing, occasionally frustrating character, much more appealing to me than any of Agatha Christie’s sleuths.  He reminds me a little, now I think of it, of Jimmy McNulty in The Wire, and that can only be a good thing.  (Yes, I may have a crush on both of these fictional characters.  That’s okay, isn’t it?)
The other pleasant discovery was the author’s use of language.  Chandler’s descriptions are sharp and clear.  He uses what I think of as ‘clean’ prose; free of embellishments and whimsy, yet possessed of a clear-eyed beauty.  He zeroes in on unlikely details, such as a woman’s thumb:“It was a curiously shaped thumb, thin and narrow like an extra finger, with no curve in the first joint.”

I’m pretty sure it’s just me, perhaps because, as I say, I don’t read or even watch a lot of crime stuff, but I found the plot a little hard to follow.  However, that aside, it was a great introduction to Chandler’s work, and I am looking forward to meeting Marlowe again.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)

Like crime, historical fiction doesn’t usually do it for me, and I was slightly daunted by Wolf Hall’s doorstopper thickness.  However, once again, I learned something about books, covers and judging.  Mantel throws you straight into a Tudor England that thrums with realism.  The use of the present tense is an extremely effective way of positioning the reader in the moment rather than making us feel as if we are looking back on history we learned in school.
Cromwell as a character is so nuanced and believable that, in the words of one reviewer:

I have my suspicions that Hilary Mantel actually is Thomas Cromwell.”

He is also almost always referred to merely with the pronoun, except when clarification is needed, when Mantel uses “he, Cromwell,”.  This places us almost, but, perhaps crucially, not quite, as close to him and to his point of view a first person narrative would.  Like Marlowe, Cromwell is a fascinating character, three-dimensional and complex, unmistakeably real.

With its 650 pages barely covering two of of Henry VIII’s marriages, and with a sequel to come, Wolf Hall doesn’t crackle along pace-wise, but what it lacks in rip-roaring adventure, it more than makes up for in subtle intelligence.
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001)
I wanted to love this, especially after finding out that it apparently took ten years to write, and at times I did.  By the end, however, I had lost interest.  In my defence, it’s not a short book, and I had just worked my way through the epic Wolf Hall – perhaps I should have treated myself to something a bit flimsier first.  Exploring the tangled lives of the Lambert family, Franzen presents us with multiple points of view and time-shifts, and the increasingly complicated, and in my opinion, increasingly implausible, plot detracts from the well-drawn characters, clever imagery and, most importantly, the black humour that Franzen does so well.  I’d be really interested to hear what other people think of this book, and of Franzen; I’m planning to read Freedom soon, and will try and do so with an open mind.

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