The Last Month in Books

I’ve been somewhat neglectful of this site recently. What with getting my dissertation finished and attempting to earn enough money to pay the rent there has been little time to spare. But there is always time to read. So here’s what I’ve been reading whilst I’ve been away.

1. Diane Williams, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine (CB Editions, 2016)

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I may have found a new favourite author in Diane Williams. She is the author of short stories of everyday life, but in them the everyday is never quotidian. Instead it takes on a sinister appearance, where motives are rarely pure, a world that resembles our own but with an undercurrent of malice.

I also rarely had any idea what was going on.

But it is Williams’ idiosyncratic use of syntax that kept me glued to the page. Her sentences are some of the best I think I have ever read. Sentences such as:

“The gimcracks were set out on a jutting surface and the woman listened to the indoor crowd that made the sound of a storm in a dry forest.”

Or:

“On the avenue, I was unavoidably stuck inside of an uproar when the wind locked itself in front of my face.”

In fact, I enjoyed Williams’ writing so much that I now have two more of her collections of short stories, Vicky Swanky is a Beauty, and Romance Erector.

 

2. Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel (New York Review of Books, 2003)

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This is a really interesting story, if not a lengthy one (I find recently that I’ve been reading more and more novellas and short story collections). First published in 1940, and hailed by Jorge Luis Borges as having the perfect plot, it follows the time spent upon a seemingly inhabited-then-habited island by the unnamed narrator, a fugitive hiding from the law of his own country.

The strange love story that ensues between the narrator and a woman, Faustine, develops alongside a narrative of the line between the dangers and beauty of scientific discovery, reminiscent in part of Phillip K. Dick. A thoroughly enjoyable and somewhat thought provoking read.

 

3. Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (Vintage, 2005)

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This is a book that has been on my shelves for quite a while, and that I have been meaning to read for quite a while.

Given the gravity of its subject: one of the main protagonists of an unnamed revolutionary regime in an unnamed country, now ageing, is arrested and put on trial for crimes against that regime, this is a surprisingly easy and light read. It would have been easy for this to become difficult, harrowing even, especially as it is based upon the author’s own experiences and those of people known to him personally, but Koestler manages his subject deftly. It is thought provoking, and constructively so, musing upon the complete meaninglessness of many political choices, and the arbitrary way that regimes are run.

 

4. Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (Fourth Estate, 2015)

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This book was not what I expected it would be. Based entirely upon Smart’s real life and long-term love affair with the married poet George Barker, this is a poetic meditation upon the trauma, but also beauty of that affair. It is an impassioned book, at times exultant, and at times fearful and despairing. First published in 1945, it serves an excellent example of a precursor to later movements in feminist writing, such as L’écriture feminine. It is a piece of writing that was perhaps ahead of its time, and serves even today as a really moving testament of one woman’s love for a married man.

 

5. Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (Vintage, 2012)

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This is another book that has been sat on my shelves for a long time, and I finally decided it was time to read it whilst travelling across the country by train, and it was perhaps the perfect book for train travel: easy to follow, not too difficult, but with an underlying message.

I thought the plot good, the concept that we see the past through our own eyes and minds, largely ignoring the lived experiences of others is an interesting idea, and one that is adequately conveyed. I felt though that it slipped up on occasion by appearing slightly clumsy, or too sure of itself. Although of course this may have just been the character of the central protagonist, who has until this point felt sure of himself and his memories, and whose confidence begins to unravel. I enjoyed reading this book, but I can’t say that it will stick with me.

 

6. Stefan Zweig, Letter from an Unknown Woman (Pushkin Press, 2013)

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I have been meaning to read something by Stefan Zweig for a long time, and one day I found myself in the awful situation of having time on my hands, on my own, in town, and having no reading material. So I bought this. And I’m glad that I did.

Zweig’s prose is spare, and every word seems important. His narratives are seemingly simple affairs, but told immaculately and movingly.

I will be reading more Stefan Zweig.

 

7. Han Kang, The White Book (Portobello Books, 2017)

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This is a beautiful book. Presented as an immaculately white hardback, the small chunks of prose within are interspersed with black and white images that, despite the grey, seem suffused with light. The narrative is both a musing upon the colour white itself, as well as the story of someone (the author?) who has recently moved to a new city.

I really enjoyed Kang’s The Vegetarian, a book I found powerful, disturbing, and joyful in equal measures. This is quite different. Alining itself with the colour white, it is much sparer, every single word counting as much as any of the others. Which perhaps renders it all the more powerful. It is considered, very considered, and requires a reading that is equally considered.

 

8. DC Comics, Batman: A Death in the Family (DC Comics, 2009)

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A bit of a curveball.

My partner is really into comics, and Batman is his favourite, and this particular Batman storyline is his favourite Batman. So I was given it to read. At first I was unconvinced. Being a big reader of “Literature”, the plot seemed obvious, the writing far too simple, and the character development rather shallow. But then I was hooked. In the way that you get hooked by a TV show you at first think trashy, I found myself needing to read more, and then a bit more. I discovered that actually the plot was not always so obvious, and the characters have much more depth to them than their two-dimensional images permit them. And Superman turns up later on, who (shhhhhh!) I always preferred to Batman on TV during my childhood.

Anyway, I’ve agreed to read some more.

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