Hello, poor neglected blog. Am I on track with the ambitious 60-book goal I declared in my last, long-ago post? Of course not. My reading this year has been patchy so far: a pretty good start, then a few months of drought (much like the weather in this country).
Recently my reading has picked up a bit. I’m not sure whether the very welcome arrival of cooler temperatures has anything to do with this (it probably does). These, anyway, are the books I’ve finished over the last few weeks or so.
Agatha Christie – The Murder at the Vicarage
I really enjoyed the beginning of this, especially Christie’s dry wit and razor-sharp character descriptions, although I also felt that there were perhaps a few too many characters and that they therefore blended together a little.
The plot was clever, of course. I didn’t see the conclusion coming (not surprising for me) and was utterly taken in by all the many red herrings. But I felt that my attention waned from around the halfway point. It started to feel like the book was biding its time until the reveal, so that when it actually came, I had been perilously close to losing interest. This was only my second Christie, having read Murder on the Orient Express earlier this year (which I loved). I think it’s pretty likely that I’ll continue reading her, though.
Maggie Nelson – Bluets
I had wanted to read this for ages. Maggie Nelson has been on my radar for a long time. I enjoyed and admired Bluets, although I sometimes found its highly poetic, very intellectual nature almost impenetrable. I felt that perhaps I wasn’t quite the right audience for this, but I’m still glad I read it.
Sebastian Barry – Days Without End
A book that others have raved about, which is often a prelude to disappointment. I admired this novel more than I liked it. It was an odd book, in a way, because the narrative voice was so intimate and casual, and yet in the background the events described were epic, relentlessly gruesome, and always held at arm’s length.
It was essentially an action-driven, episodic novel (i.e. not my usual cup of tea), and I found that I would read one chapter, be drawn in by the intensity of it, then, relieved to have a break, I would put it down again for a long time, only picking it up for another chapter because the intimacy of the narrative voice had a tiny hook in me. The thing I admired most was the quality of the descriptive writing: lyrical and rich, and not in an inaccessible or tedious way.
Robin Stevens – The Case of the Blue Violet
I read this as a burst of light relief while trying to finish Days Without End. It was very short, but hit the spot and managed to fit a lot into a short story. The mystery was clever. I read all of Robin Stevens’ detective society mysteries last year and earlier this year and found them to be a treat.
Jonathan Coe – Marginal Notes, Doubtful Statements
This was a compilation of Jonathan Coe’s non-fiction from 1990-2013, divided into two sections: one focused on his literary criticism; the other on more personal topics.
I’ve been a fan of Jonathan Coe for years. I think I’ve read, and have copies of, all of his novels. I enjoyed this collection, although it did start to become a little repetitive of theme after a while, I guess as these were originally articles or pieces that appeared in newspapers or as introductions to other books, and weren’t intended to form a complete book. I especially liked the final chapter, a speech on how the novel can act as a reflection of and antidote to the rush of modern life. A treat, mostly; but I would probably only recommend this collection for hardcore Coe fans.
A caveat: I’ve always thought of Coe as being sympathetic towards female characters, and I still do. However, there were a few comments in this collection that grated on me, such as this from an interview with Coe:
I think the Baileys [Prize] is now getting to a point where it is on a par with the Booker for influence in terms of sales and prestige, and to find yourself excluded from that party is dispiriting.
This gave me a bad taste in my mouth: the idea of him, a white middle-aged successful man, sulking about not being eligible for a literary prize for women. Rather than any intentional maliciousness on his part, I think it is probably just a failure to understand that gender equality in literature (and other areas, of course) is a myth. He presumes that there is no need for the prize now that equality has been achieved; that men and women should compete for literary prizes on an equal footing. Sadly, of course, this simply isn’t true. (More here. And here).