August 2012 Reading: 1Q84 Book Three, Sabra Zoo, From the Mouth of the Whale, The Story of an African Farm, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, The Song of Achilles, Tuesdays with Morrie, Quilt, Pedro Paramo

1Q84 Book Three by Haruki Murakami (2011)
The final part of Murakami’s trilogy was, for me, stronger than the middle book. The elevation of the character of Ushikawa to a third viewpoint character makes a change to the alternating Aomame-Tengo chapters of the previous two parts. Although some might not approve of the novel’s unusually neat ending, I found this a satisfying conclusion to one of the more readable Murakami novels. However, I think I still prefer his short stories.
Sabra Zoo by Mischa Hiller (2010)
An economical and balanced account of the weeks leading up to the massacre at the Sabra refugee camp in Beriut in 1982, told from the point of view of half-Danish, half-Palestinian Ivan. At eighteen, his own selfish preoccuptations loom almost as large as the turmoil around him, and the novel is all the stronger for refusing to make the protagonist either hero or anti-hero. Another book that made me want to find out more about the history surrounding it.
From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón (2011)
A dazzling, surreal, poetic vision of Iceland in the seventeenth century, this novel is unlike any other I have read. Telling the story (in both first and third person) of healer and learned man Jónas Pálmason, this book is part myth, part comedy, part historical chronicle. The landscape and wildlife of Iceland come to life through Victoria Cribb’s fantastic translation, making me very excited about my visit there later in the year. Although I’m hoping for fewer evil spirits.
The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner (1883)
A re-read of a book I read many moons ago as an undergrad, Schreiner’s novel is quite hard work, at times veering into dangerously preachy territory, as nineteenth century novels are sometimes apt to do. However, as a portrait of an unfamiliar life and, even more, an unfamiliar landscape, it does seem fresher than similar novels set in Britain. The character of Waldo, the farm boy, is deeply sympathetic, although the heroine, Lyndall, is less so (and she does like to go on a bit). I was mainly reading this for research purposes, but it reminded me of the importance of going back in time a little in my reading. I have become slightly too focused on contemporary fiction recently. Any reading suggestions for older fiction that stands outside the traditional British ‘canon’?
The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards (2006)
Another book club read, this book opens with one heck of a hook. The central premise, that an American woman in the sixties gives birth to twins, one of whom has Down’s Syndrome and is sent away by the father, immediately provides momentum to the plot, as we watch the husband, David, (who tells his wife the child is dead) stack lie upon lie to protect his secret. It is an intelligent portrait of a marriage, and Edwards does a pretty good job of showing the prevailing attitudes of the time that caused David to make his awful decision. But there are still a few ‘suspension of disbelief’ moments, and the ending felt very rushed.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2011)
If ever there was a book I wish I’d written, this is it.
As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I have a bit of a soft spot for the ol’Ancient Greeks. I even, I have to confess, spent two weeks of one teenage summer at Greek Camp. Wait, I really didn’t have to confess that, did I? I was also the only person in my year at school to study Greek A-Level, and one of my set texts was Book XVI of The Iliad. The one with the death of Patroclus. Y’know, Achilles’ best mate. Even with my hazy grasp of Greek grammar, he always struck me as a fascinating, underrated character, and somewhere in my geeky mind, I knew I wanted to write a story about him.
Turns out Madeline Miller beat me to it. And I’m quite glad about it, because there’s no way I could ever match her beautiful prose, sensitive respect for the source-material-to-end-all-source-material, and above all her moving portrayal of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. I always knew they were more than just good friends.
The second half of the novel focuses on the story of the Trojan War, familiar, epic, full of characters brought wonderfully to life by Miller. But I found I preferred the quieter first section of the novel, the ‘untold story’ of Patroclus and Achilles as boys.
Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom (1997)
A sentimental non-fiction account of Albom’s ‘last class’ with his old professor. Diagnosed with ALS (the disease Stephen Hawking suffers from), Morrie invites friends and family to gather and learn from him before his death. Albom visits on Tuesday afternoons, and receives nuggets of wisdom from the dying man. Read it in the right frame of mind, and you will cry. If you’re feeling cynical, you’ll probably just raise an eyebrow. Especially if you’re British.
Quilt by Nicholas Royale (2010)
I have to admit, I found this novel very difficult to get into. It is the story of a man dealing with the death of his father. The prose is wonderfully inventive, words riffing on other words, spiralling in a poetic rush, and the surreal touch of the narrator/protagonist’s (the viewpoint varies, often unannounced) obsession with sting rays was right up my street, but I found it hard to empathize with him. I suspect I read it too quickly, and that it deserves another look.
Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo (1955)
A short novel that took me an embarrassingly long time to read, due to the deterioration of my Spanish, this is a classic text which has been praised by the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges. It starts off by telling the story of a man returning to his mother’s village, Comala, to look for his father, but soon dissolves into a fragmented narrative of Comala’s ghosts, including the eponymous Pedro Páramo. I will have to read it in English at some point and see if it is any less confusing, but the wafts of story and character that managed to reach me were beautiful, and I didn’t really mind never being quite sure of what was going on.
I read Pedro Páramo partly because I am working on a novel about a small town and its ghosts. Next up on that theme is a re-read of Cien Años de Soledad   – if anyone has any more suggestions, let me know!