Recent Reading

Let’s see — what have I been reading recently? I finished Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence. I liked it, but didn’t love it. I kept thinking the whole time I was reading how much her subject matter is like Anita Brookner’s, but I like Brookner better. Pym has a lighter tone and is more satirical, whereas Brookner strikes me as working in a darker mode, and maybe that darkness appeals to me more. I did like the characters’ interactions in the Pym, especially the workplace dynamics she describes, and I liked the contrast between city and small town life. But I never felt fully absorbed in the story or in the novel’s ideas.

I also finished Ali Smith’s new novel, There But For The, which was also a little disappointing. I really liked The Accidental, and this one wasn’t as good. The two books have a similar structure: they are divided into four parts, each from a different point of view, each part adding a different perspective on the story. But in the new novel, the four parts don’t hold together very well, and they aren’t equally interesting. The last part was my favorite, told in the voice of a young girl who is brilliant and funny. I also liked the part describing the dinner party — the novel is about a dinner party guest who goes upstairs, locks himself in a bedroom, and refuses to come out — because it was wickedly satirical and funny. But it just never came together into a coherent whole. The four different perspectives in The Accidental were much more tightly focused on one story, so the reader can compare how the different characters made sense of it. There isn’t the same pleasure to be had in the new book.

Hmmm … it’s good that I’m happily in the middle of Tana French’s In the Woods, or this post would be almost entirely negative, since I discontentedly set aside Ben Marcus’s new novel The Flame Alphabet after about 90 pages. I liked his novel Notable American Women, but struggled with the new one, partly because it was too similar in tone, style, and theme to the earlier one. His books are strange and powerful, and need to be read in small doses, I guess. I think I can handle darkness and ugliness in my fiction, but somehow there needs to be something appealing about it, in some way, no matter how unexpected or perverse, and I wasn’t finding that here. Also, I had a hard time grasping the world he was creating because it seemed arbitrary and I didn’t really believe it — it’s a world like ours but where children’s language has suddenly become toxic, so adults are being stricken by horrible illnesses merely by living with their offspring. I would be okay not believing in the world of the novel if the ideas it is exploring are engaging, but Marcus’s interest in language as dangerous doesn’t resonate with me.

So, after reading a bunch of experimental fiction (or “experimental” or whatever — not counting the Pym, of course), some of which I liked — The Last Samurai — and some of which I didn’t, I figured it was time for something more traditional, hence In the Woods. It’s an absorbing story, which is exactly what I wanted.

10 Comments

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10 responses to “Recent Reading

  1. Sorry for your string of less-than-awesome reads; how unpleasant when that happens! :( Have you read Tana French’s first, The Likeness? I found it last (have now read all three; Tana write more!) and liked it best. Glad you’re enjoying that one at least!

  2. In the Woods is ridiculously engrossing so I’m glad it’s snapping you out of your slump. Though, I must say that I actually really enjoyed Ali Smith’s new novel, despite really not liking The Accidental. I thought it was whimsical but not trying quite so hard. I suppose the fact that it didn’t have any of the weird stream-of-consciousness nonsense that I despised about The Accidental helped too! ;)

  3. Rohan Maitzen

    I thought I’d love ‘Jane and Prudence’ but had about the same reaction as you – somehow I never quite fell into the novel. I can see what you mean about Brookner having that darker edge, but there are other lighter novelists (Anne Tyler?) whose novels do pull me right in. Though now that I think about it, Tyler too often has a shadowy undercurrent even in her earlier books. Hmmm.

  4. It’s always interesting how differently people react to different books. I sort of liked Into The Woods but really wanted to love it more. But I did love Jane and Prudence, and There But For The. It would be such a dull world if we all reacted the same way! But I’m really glad you’ve found a book that hits the spot – it’s a pain when reading refuses to be wonderful. :)

  5. I’ve only read Jane and Prudence by Pym, but it left me completely unmoved. Never felt inclined to read Pym again, just not my cup of tea!

  6. Pagesofjulia — I thought The Likeness was second? Anyway, I haven’t read it yet, but I definitely will. My husband loves it too. She has a new one coming out this summer!

    Steph — it IS ridiculously engrossing! Nice way to put it. The pages just flew by. Funny how our opinions of Smith differ. I wonder what I would have thought if I’d read the most recent one first.

    Rohan — interesting that you had the same reaction about the Pym. It’s very hard to pinpoint what the issue was. I think it’s partly the darkness, but there’s something else — something about pacing? I don’t know. Something about the world didn’t come to life. It’s some magic authors work, I guess …

    Litlove — How funny! Yes, it would definitely be dull, because what would we talk about? I did see some flaws in In the Woods, but it was absorbing anyway, which was perfect.

    Nicola — It’s kind of nice to discover that you don’t need to read any more of a particular author — it narrows the book choices slightly!

  7. Too bad about your string of disappointments. In the Woods should clear your reading pallette nicely :)

  8. I’d really like to read more of Barbara Pym’s novels–I keep meaning to but never getting around to it. I really liked Excellent Women. And I’ve enjoyed all of Tana French’s novels–maybe the last one she wrote a bit less than the previous two, but she seems to be dependably good. She has a new one coming out this summer–something to look forward to!

  9. I’ve read about a summer reading list on another blog. Yes, summer list already. Just curious, are you planning to draft up a summer reading list?

  10. Trish

    I really love Barbara Pym’s books – Excellent Women is my favorite. And In The Woods is a great book- I love the mysterious ending.

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