The 'Cold Sea' is the Baltic. This is a strikingly regional book compared with much translated contemporary lit I've read: Huelle's focus is the Gdans...moreThe 'Cold Sea' is the Baltic. This is a strikingly regional book compared with much translated contemporary lit I've read: Huelle's focus is the Gdansk area of northern Poland, his home. All of these short stories are set there or have expat protagonists originally from the area, except one set in seventeenth century coastal Sweden; they are variously realist or magic-realist. (Apparently influenced by Borges - whom I really should read as no other writer of whom I'm so ignorant is referenced this often re. books I read.)
Frequently, I think most fiction books could do with maps - not just fantasy - and this was a case in point. Several stories were enhanced by appreciating distances travelled or changing national borders. And if you've ever stared at poster maps of Europe you may have wondered about those funny strings and spits of land on the Polish coast: a couple of these stories give a little of their history. (So I realised after Google mapping some locations.) There are even train and bus routes on them. For yes, they are inhabited. Including by impoverished fisherman, the ghosts of fearsome wreck scavengers and piratical lore: like tales of the Cornish coast (without the glamour and sunshine - one of these areas is named Hel[l]) or Annie Proulx's rendering of old Newfoundlanders.
The stories themselves are pretty good but not spectacular - fans of literary short stories could do a lot worse - though I found some of them predictable. The translation was almost too smooth: it read so very much like English language literary fiction that the subtle and very welcome sense of difference from typical litfic style - one of the things I like best about reading translations - was almost absent. For me the attraction was hearing about places, history and cultures, and looking up numerous Wikpedia articles. (At the end of the book there is a dialogue between the author and translator which provides background but I loved getting much more detail online.)
The first two stories were the best, and have stuck in my mind most strongly in the week since I finished the book. 'Mimesis' is set in a village of Vistula Delta Mennonites; whilst it does combine a few tropes such as "young woman in religious cult" and others I shan't mention in case of spoilering, the combination of them was so unusual, and the context so surprising that it made a very memorable story, of a community I'd probably heard mentioned briefly in textbooks and then forgotten. 'The Bicycle Express' is quite transparently autobiographical and made textbook/newspaper history suddenly emotive and spine-tingling: the postgrad-student protagonist's efforts to help the then-new Solidarity movement, and his relationship with his cousin, a tragic dissident genius wrecked by a long stint in Siberia.
Several of the other stories are told from the viewpoints of men around the author's age and get away with bits of stereotyping an American author probably wouldn't (especially 'mystical wise men of the Orient') - though sometimes it's unclear whether Huelle is quietly sending himself up, for example in 'The Flight into Egypt', a tale of a painter who is unblocked after seeing news pictures of a beautiful Chechen refugee woman. 'First Summer' returns to the setting of 'Mimesis' in the company of people who weren't born at the time of the earlier story: this story of nostalgia gone sour pulls together many strings from elsewhere - and may be a comment on the east european phenomenon of nostalgia for the Communist era. It's ambiguous, again, whether its negativity about a party of loud, outrageous, frequently naked gay men trying to celebrate Poland's first gay wedding is the protagonist's or Huelle's. Their portrayal seems outdated, but then gay culture in eastern europe is still more underground (so my saying it's outdated could be similar to those US reviewers who criticise aesthete/ dandy types in fiction whilst I know from my own acquaintance that there are still real people quite like those).
It would be interesting to know how Huelle is viewed in Poland. (In the UK he's gained some recognition among readers of translated literature via four long- or short-listings for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, but he's hardly well known.)I get a sense that if the history and geography in which his work is steeped weren't fascinatingly novel and exotic to me, he could perhaps be understood as another of those comfortably established (once-radical) writers who are overrated and always in the papers, like Ian McEwan in Britain.(less)
A short novel about the experience of a Polish Jewish woman during the Second World War, based on a true story. What makes this different from much "H...moreA short novel about the experience of a Polish Jewish woman during the Second World War, based on a true story. What makes this different from much "Holocaust literature" is how much of an adventure it turns into; it often reads like the trials and tribulations of a Resistance heroine, except that Izolda's cause is not her entire country, simply her friends and relatives, in particular her new husband - first to get them out of the Warsaw ghetto, and then trying to get him out of a concentration camp. As with the family in Art Spiegelman's Maus, jaw-dropping good luck, connections, and various skills both practical and social, enabled some of the people in Chasing the King of Hearts to survive the war whilst millions did not. (If I hadn't read Maus quite recently, I may have been incredulous about the sheer number of things people pull off.) Unlike the Spiegelmans, Izolda travels around long-distance, tries to make deals, uses disguises - though she too is eventually arrested. It's told in very short chapters and rather a detached style: often it is an account of what happened, minus fine detail, with occasional intrusion of strong feelings beautifully described. This reflects the experience of partial emotional shut-down in emergency situations whilst concentrating on methodically, obsessively getting things done and on survival. Some reviewers have commented that the style makes it difficult to connect with the protagonist, but if you have or recognise this shut-down tendency, then the narrative approach completely makes sense. Chasing the King of Hearts wasn't perhaps as amazing as the small-press publishers, Peirene, made it out to be - as the best of their books so far - but it will be of interest to those who want to hear stories of remarkable ordinary women during the Second World War or who get tired of the cumulative passivity of many characters in wartime litfic. (less)
Another from Peirene Press, a Finnish novella set in the late 1870s in the Kentish village of Downe (now with a somewhat less picturesque address in t...moreAnother from Peirene Press, a Finnish novella set in the late 1870s in the Kentish village of Downe (now with a somewhat less picturesque address in the London Borough of Bromley). The title character, one among many villagers whose thoughts we hear, is Thomas Davies, Charles Darwin's gardener, recently widowed and with two disabled children. (Darwin himself is a silent yet imposing presence in the book.) The cast and their concerns are the Thomas Hardy type of everyday country folk, busy, often judgemental; one feels that people have in a way been like them for hundreds or thousands of years, yet here they are in the time of the theory of evolution, with science challenging religion more publicly than ever before. Mr Darwin's Gardenerhas been described as a "postmodern Victorian novel"; I'd say modernist, though there are one or two postmodern touches. The narrative flits between many minds, their daily lives and their secrets and philosophies in the manner of Woolf or Joyce, though is very easy to read. The subject matter is, I suppose, quite dark, gritty and serious but the book is instead light and airy and charming, delicate even. The first couple of chapters were less satisfying, possibly due to the translation; it would be quite a task to translate sentences that copied the cadences of bird calls or church prayers (if indeed they do so exactly in the original) whilst also retaining their different narrative meaning - but the not-quite-fitting does show. It's interesting to see how an author from abroad views England; in social attitudes Carlson seems spot-on, done more quietly and non-judgementally than a typical UK writer. Nick Lezard in the Guardian, who's more unreservedly keen on the book than I am, says There is another aspect of Joyce that this novel shares, an aspect that some people forget: that of tender inclusivity, of sympathy and understanding. There are a few small errors of the factual type: too many Scottish and Irish names, a cow that won a prize in Cheltenham (a bit far to travel to show cattle with no motorised transport), and an unlikely goshawk, but most of the time these can be forgotten, immersed in a lovely, though not fluffy, book.(less)
Many of the UK book blogs I read love certain boutique presses, though until now I'd viewed these publishers as a bit too precious. (The blogs are nic...moreMany of the UK book blogs I read love certain boutique presses, though until now I'd viewed these publishers as a bit too precious. (The blogs are nice to read because they're usually more good-natured than, er, Goodreads, it's just that I have a misanthopic side too and am hardly ever bothered about fancy editions.) On actually looking at Peirene Press' website for the first time - in the run up to the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize I wanted to find out more about their recent titles - I saw how very well their books suit my taste: they specialise in newly translated European fiction, with plenty from Northern and Eastern Europe, serious but not so heavyweight as, say, Krasznahorkai; all books are under 200 pages (yay); they print paperbacks which don't have excessively twee designs or separate dustjackets, and the company even supports a cause I particularly like (a charity providing counselling for people on low incomes). And as Peirene only releases three new titles a year - organised around a theme - it's not a tall order to read them all.
The 2013 theme was "turning points"; The Mussel Feast (only 105 pages) was written in Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. For the now-shaky Communist state it uses the allegory of a nuclear family with a tyrannical father who is unexpectedly late home one evening; the titular meal, his favourite, has been prepared; his wife, son and daughter don't much like it. In its transparency the allegory reminded me of the Czechoslovak New Wave film A Report on the Party and the Guests, or The Garden Party and other plays by Vaclav Havel, a collection I read a couple of years ago - however The Mussel Feast works better than these as its own story, not only as symbolism, and because of this I found it more involving.
Narrated by the eldest child, the 18-year-old daughter, it conveys terribly well, yet simply, the constricting atmosphere of a family with rigid rules in which you're usually frightened, and the obvious similarity of this with a political dictatorship. The thought pattern of difficult parent being late home, glad about it, freedom to breathe for a few more minutes but tension as they could be there any minute, have they had a car crash, hope they won't be coming back, but is that them now, was terribly familiar from numerous childhood days. (German Wikipedia implies the book is semi-autobiographical, which I can well believe. The absence of 1980s cultural references must relate to this - the writer is about 15 years older than the narrator - but this does give a sense of claustrophobia and being cut off that suits the subject.) The nameless girl's account of their family life is easy to read yet characterised by repetition, action related with little emotion, nasty things elided with phrases at once ominous and innocuous - "then my Sunday was over" after father was displeased about something - these and a style simpler than her implied intelligence all give the sense of a life during which branches of thought and feeling had to be cauterised as part of larger adaptation and survival. In some ways the expression is quite ordered: most of it is straightforward to understand, reflecting the predictability of the tyranny the narrator grew up in; yet trauma, secretly unmanaged terror and suppressed life force bubble underneath, the narrative's events and ideas sometimes blur into one another, and paragraphs are very long. In a speaker with more freedom of expression, the tone would be breathless, but here that headlong rush is disguised by someone who has mathematical and logical rather than artistic strengths, and who has had to learn over many years how to make things sound presentable to a person with particularly unrelenting standards.
The author later commented about writing the book, "I wanted to understand how revolutions start". I haven't actually studied the history of any modern revolutions in depth beyond school level, though what she shows rings true with the fall of Eastern Bloc Communism as seen on the news: the father's absence, signifying "gradual reform" or the earlier toleration of Solidarity, makes it possible for people who hadn't previously spoken up to share their thoughts more and to begin to act.
A number of positive reviews mention finding the book funny; for me it was literally too close to home and too well-realised for that but if you have the detachment to laugh at the absurdity of dictatorial people and their expectations, you may be amused. It's a shame The Mussel Feast wasn't translated earlier as it would have been of great interest in the early 90s when the political events were still fresh in everyone's minds.(less)
[3.5] Louise from Sleeper: plenty to like and also plenty to dislike, she wasn't easy or straightforward and that was part of her awkward-squad appeal...more[3.5] Louise from Sleeper: plenty to like and also plenty to dislike, she wasn't easy or straightforward and that was part of her awkward-squad appeal. In the first, pre-fame, half of the book I was reminded mostly of the dislike; I was annoyed and frustrated as I had been nearly twenty years ago when reading her interviews, full of disappointment that someone I thought was cool had said that. And wished, then and now, that I was reading Justine Frischmann instead because she wasn't like this.
That first half was mostly in that semi-humorous nostalgic journalese that thousands of people, including several of my friends, can write creditably probably even on a bad hangover and no sleep. Tapes made from Top of the Pops, people you liked and disliked at school (surnames always given as part of the style, though it rarely seems a fair thing to do) - you know the sort of thing. It gets old unless you really really like the person, the music they're talking about and/or they've got a transcendent writing style. I actually wouldn't swap her childhood for mine, though it, whilst far from perfect, was happier and more normal on balance. Whilst she, like me, felt a bit out of sync due to having older parents, she was just a bit brighter than average, not brilliant as I'd assumed when I was a teenager, and she seemed too content with the mediocrity around her, not weird enough - an asset in her suffocating, bully-riddled Essex school... There are shining moments but mostly it's all very stereotype-Essex, right down to the way she and her friend dress to see a Bowie gig. I used to assume that having spent teenage years closer to London would mean that interesting, less obvious music and culture and people who liked them were easier to find, but this was no better than hundreds of miles further north - and much worse than my school which was at least quite peaceful (even if it couldn't compare, in terms of academic options or interesting people, with the schools many of my university friends had been to).
Much of the meh-ness fell into place later, with this: “Our debut interview was with the NME or Melody Maker, I'm not sure which – both are interchangeable to me. Jon, Diid and Andy have grown up on these papers but they've never been part of my musical landscape.” So that's partly why her tastes stayed so mainstream-pop, why she never even referred to the idea of corporate-sellout plastic Bowie in order to dismiss it, why in her teens she hardly seems to get any more serious about music than she was as a kid. That she didn't have any idea about what you actually needed to do to be in a band until she went to university and didn't even know the difference between rhythm guitar and bass. (The fucking cheek! As far as I was concerned you were a write-off band-wise if you hadn't learned to play guitar etc reasonably well by university time . Not that I, being frequently ill and also very moody back then, would have been any sort of asset to a student band even if I could play. I had several opportunities to talk myself into bands, but wouldn't have dared because you already had to have the skillz. I was in absolute agreement with that, never liked people to see I couldn't do stuff, and simply being an okay singer was not good enough for me if I couldn't play and write. If it hadn't been for illness I certainly would have made a better stab at it, or perhaps I would have been confident enough not to think the keyboard too embarrassing to be worth working at; as it was my hands were too weak for guitar and I tired too easily in the crucial year or two when it may still have been worth seriously learning and practising guitar - pretty often even walking to lectures was too much.Yes I am bitter.)
Oh god, and then there was this bit: “He's a boy. He is very particular about amps and guitars. He's surprisingly reluctant to base his selection criteria on a) which guitar looks the prettiest b) which guitars come in green, c) what guitar Courtney Love is currently using.” [I have one of my bouts of “I'm not actually a girl, I'm something that was randomly allocated the body of one (and usually tries to make the best of this). Though at least she reminded me of an old favourite, Hole's 'Celebrity Skin'... my name is might have been, my name is never was, my name's forgotten, and that power pop chorus angrily celebrating nothing - because you might as well when you've nothing else to celebrate but almost. Words and ideas which sound quite different when nearly twenty years older; I'm just smiling in recognition. ]
And this: “His interview technique is a test of their musical hobbyism, to see if they pass muster or fail...It goes on like this for another half an hour. Endlessly on about favourite rock guitarists and obscure German electronica and not a single question directed to the girly singer. No enquiry into songwriting or lyrics.” Now, there were not a lot of social things I was good at as a fresher, but I am 100% serious that even as a teenager I dealt with equivalent group conversations way better. You fucking well interrupt, you tell them your opinions about music that are as well-informed as theirs, you watch the momentary puzzlement gradually turn to respect, which is a bit of a buzz, and you keep on with the joining in and interrupting - after all they interrupt each other all the time, so once they've noticed you in the first place it becomes equal. In my day there was even a useful comedy reference if they were being twats in certain ways. (Mentioning the Fast Show woman whose ideas were always repeated by men – I used to know her character name – leveraged several apologies. Thank you Arabella Weir.) If I'd been more truly confident and more solid, I should have started referring to them as my Sleeperblokes... It was a great disappointment to me, and I honestly thought it would not be this way as I got older, that I can count on the fingers of one hand the other women I've known who also like this sort of intensively detailed conversation about music – and a couple of them I don't even know very well, mostly just to talk to online in group discussions. Oh yeah, and the “musical hobbyism” thing, and not talking about songwriting? That's because the journo doesn't want to show up his own shortage of musical talent, is trying to create a level playing field with people he envies, and is doing the same for many readers who are in the same boat. Not that I realised this until I was much older...
But then, but then … In that same bit about the interview, just as they're starting to get famous, there at last is the Louise Wener who I remembered, who was the reason to read this bloody book... Not even realising the irony of this whilst making no effort to talk to the woman, the journalist “hasn't stopped banging on about political correctness since he got here. You use the phrase 'right on' a lot, don't you?...it's a bit prescriptive, a bit Orwellian” (p.158) She may have felt like a controversialist cartoon, but if you were a teenage girl with strong, awkward opinions, reading this stuff was seriously inspiring.
Then remembering about when I disagreed with her and agreed with Frischmann. “How does it feel to know boys are masturbating over your photograph?...They are questions male music journalists ask me. All the time...” [Find quote] Justine Frischmann was detached, amused and cool, not angry or especially flattered. Which was even more cool because she didn't look like Claudia Schiffer. Though what I don't remember anyone saying at the time was “So what? If you're not very old or a complete moose (and possibly even then given the infinite variety of humanity and its secret tastes) someone who saw you on the bus this week probably thought about you later on whilst they were having a wank. It's good that they don't tell you...”
It's probably fitting that a post about Louise Wener consists mostly of off-topic, off-the-cuff rants. But yeah, on to the good stuff, because there is also plenty of it. In the pre-fame section 1, her writing really takes off, away from the journalese, with the more melancholy stuff: the chapter on the “groundhog years” of temp jobs, cold flats, rubbish rehearsal rooms and greasy spoons, and on her father's last illness and death. That inspired her to give the band one last push, a sad event but so lucky in the timing: a band like theirs needed to pop up in 1993-4 at the beginning of the Britpop cycle; arrive very late at the party in 96 or 97 and you might only have a few months before you were dropped. (Later, she says that one thing that contributed to the rise and fall of Britpop was cuts in singles prices that record companies couldn't really afford, and in 97 they were put up again. [p.296] Which instinctively makes sense. I didn't buy a lot of singles when I already had the album, but when they were only 99p I sometimes would if I liked a B-side that Lamacq and Whiley had played, or to support a band like a team. I still remember the scorching journey into town to buy the cassette single of 'Country House', in the summer of 1995 which for me as for her is “indelibly hot and sunny in my memory”. I loved to imagine I was somewhere else (Camden), doing more exciting things, but far away in my boring life there was still some magic.)
Films or songs about being famous are often derided, and not of much interest to people who haven't experienced it, but Louise Wener's writing about her few years of fame is often much better, more alive and wiser than the by-numbers schooldays stuff (not entirely free of cliches, but there's a vivid urgency that makes them easier to disregard). I couldn't quite believe it after the disappointment of the first half. She makes me realise stuff I should have worked out years ago: the extent to which bands aren't in control of their own budget, that labels can piss them off by spending stupid amounts of royalties on promo stuff . Or (one that was more between the lines) that the stress of being cooped up with other people and their noise and smells and unending presence on tour buses can make temperamental types who need their space tip from drug use into addiction as they try to cope. I know I would have to be out of it to live with some of that stuff 24 hours a day for weeks on end. Louise Wener feels lucky not to have an addictive personality: ”you can happily regress to a sort of dirty, corrupt state of extended childhood if you want to. Other people will make your decisions for you. Other people will endlessly spin your mistakes. You see it all the time, bands laying down in the chaos and getting comfortable, forgetting to get back up again.” (p.263) I was only ever dimly aware that whilst Louise was in the band she'd been the partner of one of them for seven years, split up with him, and shortly afterwards started going out with one of the others (who she's still with now). And they managed to keep the band functioning reasonably well for about three years, including being in each others' pockets on tour, after that which is pretty impressive. You have to be a pretty solid, non-temperamental personality to pull that off. And it must have been well-managed for it not to become the defining thing about the band to someone who read as much music press as I did. (It's a bit of a shame that she wants to discourage her children from getting involved in music, but I'm not sure quite how serious she was about that bit.)
After the annoyance about pretty guitars above, I was absolutely delighted to read this: “Six hours working out the exact guitar line that fits the newly-crafted chorus. I'm getting geeky about sonics. I'm getting particular about amps and snare drum sounds. I'm not so bothered if my guitar is green or not...Music is slippery and elusive and chasing it, taming it, making it fit together is where the good stuff is. What I love most about all of this, I'm beginning to realise, is the process”. (p.245)
Sleeper may not have been as good as Blur and Pulp, but they did have some decent songs. There were yer classic Britpop character songs ….back in the early 80s one of the seeds was sown: “the [Jam] album I fall in love with is Setting Sons. It's less Vespa and Parka than All Mod Cons, more crafted, satirical and Kinks-ish. It's crammed full of narratives about wasted lives and class rivalries... council houses, rusting bicycles and holy Coca-Cola tins... 'Smithers-Jones': I don't think I've ever heard a pop song with lyrics about a ground-down, pinstripe-suit-wearing middle-aged man before.” (p.54) But it was the songs about love and sex which stuck in my memory most. 'What Do I Do Now?', even before I'd experienced a moribund relationship, was almost too real and painful to listen to, and there's something great about the way it's so simple, so poignant and catchy and jaunty. It wasn't for years, till I'd realised about my own Inbetweeners and my dismissiveness of them that I really heard what she'd been on about in that track. Or 'Delicious', “a frank, gorgeous, throwaway, punky pop gem about the pure lustful joy of having it off with someone [you] really really like”. And which enshrined that word for me; it's rare I use it without thinking of the song. Though I always had to block out the line that created the unattractive image of some hulk of a rugby player gone to seed (“you're a big man but you're out of shape” … her type isn't mine). I never bought the second album – it didn't seem cool and I'd probably disagreed with too many of Louise's interviews – though I've heard a few friends praise it since. Sleeper are maybe a band where you'd recommend a few tracks – likewise I'd like to recommend bits of Just For One Day rather than the whole thing, though books don't really work that way. (less)
I had pretty low expectations by the time I started reading this. It was the first book I was drawn to on Goodreads which I hadn't heard of elsewhere....moreI had pretty low expectations by the time I started reading this. It was the first book I was drawn to on Goodreads which I hadn't heard of elsewhere. (Still a rare thing – I mostly use the site to record reading of books I knew about before it began, or those recommended by people I got to know elsewhere). Later I saw a few bad reviews of a sort I generally have sympathy with: reads like a creative writing exercise, yet more generic American litfic. Etc.
I was still interested in this “Is it a novel? Is it a collection of short stories?” episodic ficion about a middle-aged music mogul, his thirtysomething female PA and people connected to them, spanning time from the 1970s to the quite realistically mildly-dystopian late 2020s. Even though one negative review stuck with me for saying it wasn't that much about music at all. Hmmm....well, it's more about it than I expected after reading that. In the middle third the stories concentrate more on the slightly- or formerly- famous in general, not specifically the music industry, but throughout, youth - gilded, rebellious, romanticised - loss, compromise and ageing are understood in the modes of rock and pop in the second half of the twentieth century. Part of the idiom of music which feels like home to me in the way those of other mediums don't quite. And if I'd recommend this book to anyone, it would be people who also feel the resonance of those ideas around music and age. (Acting and sport have something of that idealised attachment to youth, but not quite in the same way...) I've been watching a lot of music documentaries on BBC4 lately and it's the same feeling in this book as from the interviewees there.
The title and theme seem to be a conflation of Bowie lyrics. A sickly, washed up guitarist at one point says "time is a goon" as if it were a stock phrase, which others in conversation with him briefly question. It's a recipe for the underlying theme of the book, blending the ideas in Bowie's 'Time' with "we are the goon squad and we're coming to town".
A Visit From the Goon Squad certainly has its litfic-blah moments – the first two stories/chapters are the least surprising in their perspective and contents; throughout some ideas and writing are more successful than others. A device which used to send shivers down my spine, the use of brief summaries of what would happen to minor characters in the future, started to become dulled by overuse, though at least a few mysteries were left. Sometimes the American-ness of everything bored me; if a book about similar people had been British or European I would have loved it more and possibly given it five stars.
Multiple, interconnected viewpoints are a big trend in fiction at the moment; I was reminded of The Spinning Heart though here the characters are distributed much further in time and geography; and like The Spinning Heart the book sometimes genuinely surprised me with who the next narrative was by or about, going left-field without losing the thread, weaving something cumulatively very interesting. Given that Goon Squad used first, second and third persons, plus a Powerpoint structure, at various points I quite understand the cynic who compares this to a writing course exercise, but I enjoyed the variety, there are too many other redeeming features, and I was too interested in the characters and their world to be so dismissive myself. It's also funnier than the average book of New York-set litfic, which helped it a lot. Chapter nine was especially witty, a send-up of the DFW-inspired trend for voluminously footnoted, excessively introspective journalism (and in the light of some comments, which I read three weeks after finishing Goon Squad, about Wallace's predatory past, the piece looks even cleverer). I also think the Powerpoint structure worked very well for some things - p.244 was my favourite in the whole book, about the idea of what someone's trying to say v. what they're actually saying, which traditional narrative paragraphs are never great at doing.) Goon Squad is experimental-lite, but that's fine really; most people don't want to read a neo-Finnegan's Wake on the train home from work, nor do they want to have to dumb down to Dan Brown as the next alternative.
Even if I didn't like most of the characters to the extent of I-wish-I-was-their-best-friend as happens with a few books, I usually shared their concerns, and where I didn't, they were interesting because it was harder work to understand them. I don't often get exasperated with characters the way many posters do – it's not like I have to talk to these fictional people all the time and it's interesting trying to understand almost anyone when there's no irritation from unending proximity. But here Sasha almost managed to annoy me into empathy-failure with her kleptomania. (After a while I tried to understand it in the same way as alcoholism, as she's a fairly aware person who doesn't actually aim to cause other people frantic confusion over needed items suddenly going missing.) Egan didn't lay it on with a trowel about characters' backgrounds as a cause of their troubles (thinking particularly of Sasha and Rob) … past and family were definitely alluded to but these characters were more like real and complicated people you meet, and who don't explain absolutely everything to you, than like examples in psychology textbooks - and I started to warm to Sasha as a person rather than because a detailed justification had been set out for her.
Goon Squad has a similarly lightish touch on contemporary concerns about the internet (sometimes, I think, with tongue surreptitiously in cheek): reconnection, the alleged demise of long-form writing, the ubiquity of the web, whose opinion to trust, the anxieties of exerting influence. The environmental stuff isn't overdone either, and if you presume the vague mentions of wars include the Iraq farrago the whole thing simply sounds weary, rather than something which everyone would take to be hell-in-a-handcart.
The finale had a little too much of the big triumphant Hollywood ending; a couple of days ago I'd finished Midnight's Children, another award-winner which had the same bombast at the end. Here again, whilst enjoying it, I was also conscious of manipulation, something to leave the reader or critic or judging panel on a very high note, having found a book with some merit which also turns out to be feelgood. However, what with the rock music theme ... a final flourish is a good way to end a gig. (less)
[4.5] In many ways wonderful. I so wish I'd read it all in the 90s; there are bits I'd read before at friends' houses or I can't-remember-where, yet e...more[4.5] In many ways wonderful. I so wish I'd read it all in the 90s; there are bits I'd read before at friends' houses or I can't-remember-where, yet even when I didn't know the exact story already, it's all more familiar than expected - the characters often themselves like friends, the whole thing swathed in a haze of nostalgia almost as strong as if I was looking through a stack of NMEs from 1995.
Some of it would surely have read better in my teens than today. Unfortunately other recent reading has made me alive to tropes I'd probably have been better not knowing (without knowing a stereotype exists, it could never cross my mind in relation to real people, it make characters less real to read or watch - and it's not like I'm an author who needs to toothcomb my own work before sending it out into the world)... Mrs Robbins in High Cost of Living is lovely but seems to have echoes of the Mammy stereotype. The more constant disappointment is that Death's dialogue sometimes seems too chirpy and motivational-poster simplistic for this big old complicated life. I prefer the world-weariness of the Sandman at the beginning of this book [from Sandman #8]... but then I would, wouldn't I?(less)