Book Stuff

What I’ve Been Reading

The last 3 books I’ve read, while different from each other in every respect, have this in common: I was not entirely satisfied.

I’ll start with The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard, first published in 1980. This is the latest book read by the online book club Slaves of Golconda. I ordered it via Abebooks from a used bookstore in the UK, and it’s the first paper book I’ve read for a while. The blurb was enticing, as it should be, describing the novel as the story of 2 sisters from Australia who settle in postwar England, following their lives and romances over several decades. Of course as blurbs do, it’s vastly oversimplified, but what I really want to talk about is the author’s immense skill, how it serves and disserves.

Hazzard’s language is impressive, inventive, descriptive, unusual–in every sentence. I couldn’t lose myself in it. I was always reminded I was reading. The characters never speak as people speak, but are simply another vehicle for the author’s voice. And the author’s voice is what this book is all about, its strength, inventiveness, and its weakness, distance and density. Is it worth it? Sometimes. She constantly analyzes the characters’ reactions to each other, their awareness and consciousness of such. At times this is brilliant and the insight profound. But I found it hard going. I couldn’t forget that I was reading and so I didn’t care all that much about the characters.

Let’s move from 1980 to 2007 and Remainder by Tom McCarthy. I got this book because the library had it as an ebook and the blurb made it sound intriguing. At first I loved it. The novel begins with the first person narrator learning that he has won a multimillion pound settlement as a result of an accident. His recovery from the accident took a very long time of rehabilitation and his emotional recovery is questionable. The first person narrator is quirky, the attention to mundane detail delightful. At first.

I nearly stopped reading a couple of times but persisted to the end because of periodic hints that the book would become profound or surprising, but ultimately it was repetitive. The narrator, in trying to arrive at a sense of reality, orders the re-enactment down to the minutest details, of an apartment building complete with inhabitants (the liver lady who cooks liver all day; the pianist who makes mistakes; the motorbike guy who fixes his bike over and over). Seemingly infinite money makes this possible. Having accomplished this, he sets out to order other re-enactments. The objectification of the people and animals involved, cold at first, increases in violence and a sense that the narrator’s quirky view is actually sociopathic. Or perhaps he is actually still in a coma after all and all this is a dream.

At the end of the book I was glad it was over.

Last, and going back now to 1864 is The Perpetual Curate by Margaret Oliphant. This book was one of the reasons I’d bought a Kobo; it had been recommended and was available on Gutenberg but not my library. It’s a more conventional book than either of the two above, being about the difficulty of making a living as a son among numerous sons in the petty gentry, and the difficulty of marriage when that living has to be got before love can be fulfilled. Oliphant’s social observation is brilliant and funny, and I was driven to read right to the end to find out if the curate got his beloved Lucy. But it was repetitive. If Aunt Dora cried

Margaret Oliphant
and wrung her hands one more time I was going to tear my hair out. (That is the real reason for my thinning hair and not menopause as some might think.) About a 100 pages shorter, and I’d have loved it.

So there you have it: 3 books with much to recommend them and yet not entirely satisfactory, one in each century.

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5 thoughts on “What I’ve Been Reading”

  1. It’s a shame when reading leaves a little to be desired. As you know, I experienced the Hazzard book very similarly. There were parts of the narrative where the baroque interventions were beautiful and fascinating, and others where they became weighty and unwieldy and distanced me from the reading process. Definitely a book where gilding the lily took place (incidentally it took her 20 years to write this – often books need a long genesis, but I wondered in this case whether she’d had just too long to pick over it!). I can imagine Oliphant could get repetitive (there were slow parts in Miss Marjoriebanks) and Remainder is definitely a marmite book – love it or dislike it!

  2. Oh that’s funny about the marmite. I have to admit I’ve never tasted it but have heard much about it.

    20 years! Well that should make me feel better about my 7 (or 9 or 6, depending on whether you add in the 2 years I spent on the novel I laid aside…and whether you deduct the year+ I spent all told waiting to hear back from agent, publishers, etc. You could also take off 6 months because I started another book though not far into it. These are the kind of mind boggling calculations I put myself through! Perhaps I need another approach.)

  3. I agree with you about Remainder. I really liked the first half or 2/3. But then it got even stranger and it wasn’t fitting together anymore. It was like he had a concept that was great, but he didn’t know where to take it.

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