July 2012 Reading: Cannery Row, Sister, Afterwards, The King’s Last Song, Human Diastrophism, Freedom, Don’t Run,Whatever You Do, Fifty Shades Trilogy

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (1945)
I’ve spent so much time reading very contemporary literature this year that I wasn’t sure I would be in the mood for a Steinbeck novel. How wrong I was. Apart from being just the thing to inspire me with my own novel-in-progress about a small town with an ensemble cast, it reminded me of how gorgeously and yet simply Steinbeck uses language. I was hooked right from the novel’s opening:
                ‘Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped, pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “Whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.’
If you haven’t already read Cannery Row, do. I would rate it as easily one of the best novels I have read this year, and my new favourite work by Steinbeck.
Sister (2010) and Afterwards(2011) by Rosamund Lupton
I’ve gone and joined a Book Club. Well, I’m new in a small town, and it seemed as good a way as any to meet a few people and have a book chat over a glass or two of white. (Which is pretty much what happened.) The book for this month was Lupton’s novel Afterwards,and since a friend had given me her first novel, Sister, a few months back, I read them both, in the wrong order, admittedly. I struggled with Afterwards, mostly because I had a problem with the main premise of the book, that Grace, the first person narrator, and her daughter, Jenny, have been badly injured in a fire at a posh school, and are floating around the hospital all spirit-like, meeting up and having mother-daughter chin-wags from time to time. To Lupton’s credit, as ludicrous as it may sound, you do get used to it quite quickly, and as long as disbelief can be suspended, the novel itself is an enjoyable unravelling of the mystery of who set fire to the school. There are a few too many red herrings, and not enough subtle clues, to make the big reveal satisfying, but the family dynamics are interestingly explored.
Lupton’s first novel, Sister, held my attention more, and has a more satisfyingly dramatic denouement, and her trick of a first person narrator addressing one of the other characters in the second person worked better in Sister than in Afterwards, where Grace continually and distractingly describes her husband’s actions using ‘you’. I found that very irritating.
Next month’s book is The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards. Has anyone read it?
The King’s Last Song by Geoff Ryman (2006)
Epic in scale, The King’s Last Song flits between ancient and modern Cambodia, and gradually builds up a picture of a country I previously only had very limited knowledge of. The discovery of ancient scrolls, written on gold leaf, leads to consequences in the present day that unfold in tandem with the story of the King Jayavarman. It’s a dense book, with a lot of characters and plot strands to deal with, but it is full of striking descriptions and a real sense of the way in which history and the present interact.
Human Diastrophism by Gilbert Hernandez (2007)
The second graphic novel/comic book (this is a comic book which contains a graphic novel within it, so I really don’t know what to call it) that I’ve read this year (and, ahem, ever), and, along with Heartbreak Soup, one of only two collections set mainly in the town of Palomar. I’m quite saddened by this; Hernandez, over the years, has done an amazing job of exploring the lives of the characters of the town, and gathered together in the two fat volumes I have now devoured, they still leave you wanting more. Luckily I still have Beyond Palomar, which contains some of the same characters, and Gilbert’s brother Jaime’s collections, to go. And after that, who knows? Perhaps full-on comic book geekdom awaits.
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (2010)
Corrections, which I read last year, left me a little cold. It started out great, but the last third of the novel lost me entirely, which is why I have been putting off reading Freedom. Luckily, I had a much more positive experience with this novel. I thought the different styles of narration, focalised through different characters, worked well, and although, as usual, there is nothing warm and fuzzy, or even necessarily particularly likeable, about Franzen’s characters, the depth that he manages to create, the complexities of personality and experience, is impressive and fascinating. I got a bit frustrated, as I did in Corrections, when I felt that Franzen’s own political agenda was being put into the mouths of his characters, but it works better here.
Don’t Run, Whatever You Do: My Adventures as a Safari Guide by Peter Allison (2007)
While half of my family were on holiday in the Kruger National Park in South Africa (quite possibly my favourite place in the entire world), I decided to live vicariously and downloaded Allison’s book, which is one of the books in Kindle’s ‘Marathon’ (and therefore cheap!). It’s a very light-hearted, anecdote-driven account of life as a safari guide in the African bush; perfect for a quick read. What struck me most about his stories was the unrealistic expectations of the guests, who come to Africa with a tick-list of animals they want to see (mainly the cats) and aren’t satisfied with anything less. The beauty of game viewing in the wild is its unpredictability; if you want guaranteed sightings, go to a zoo.
Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, Fifty Shades Freed by E.L. James (2011, 2012)
Last but not least…I resisted as long as I could, but in the end I gave in and decided to see what all the fuss was about. Honestly, I was genuinely intrigued as a writer to find out for myself why this trilogy, which started life as fan fiction based on the Twilight series, has become such a phenomenon. That’s the only reason. Honestly.
I have to say, I guiltily enjoyed the first book; it’s a quick, easy read, the prose wasn’t as bad as I was expecting, and the characters are fairly engaging. It wasn’t nearly as naughty as I had been led to believe (disappointed? Me?) and there was a lot more plot than I thought there would be. I finished the book in a matter of hours, intrigued to find out what happened to Ana and Christian next. Then I started Book Two, and within pages, I realised that I was going to be treated to the same scenes, the same expressions, the same metaphors, over and over and over again until my head hurt. I almost stopped caring what happened, but annoyingly, not quite, so I limped through to the end of Fifty Shades Darker and, with a heavy heart, picked up Fifty Shades Freed. I ended up skipping the sex scenes because they are so monotonous, and surprisingly coy, considering the BDSM subject matter – Christian’s bits are described as his ‘essentials’, and Ana makes frequent shocked, italicised references to being touched ‘there’.
There’s a great piece by Victoria Coren explaining why she thinks women are drawn to the books, and, specifically, to Christian Grey, and it’s something that crossed my mind more than once: he makes her eat. Ana has pancakes and syrup and bacon for breakfast more times than the most obese of Americans, and is constantly being criticised for skipping meals – and that, apparently, is what we really want in a man.
Read the article here.