Six Degrees of Separation – From Wolf to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before…

This month’s starting book is The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. I haven’t read it but the blurb tells me…

The bestselling classic that redefined our view of the relationship between beauty and female identity. In today’s world, women have more power, legal recognition, and professional success than ever before. Alongside the evident progress of the women’s movement, however, writer and journalist Naomi Wolf is troubled by a different kind of social control, which, she argues, may prove just as restrictive as the traditional image of homemaker and wife. It’s the beauty myth, an obsession with physical perfection that traps the modern woman in an endless spiral of hope, self-consciousness, and self-hatred as she tries to fulfil society’s impossible definition of “the flawless beauty.”

Hmm – since I think this sounds like utter tosh that’s selling the mythical ‘myth’ about which it’s pretending to protest, I think it’s safe to say the book’s not my kind of thing. Which reminds me of another book that’s not my kind of thing, but which I loved anyway…

In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson. Normally I avoid vampire books but this one turned out to be so much more than that. Part examination of the hard-scrabble life of rural Texans and part-metaphor for the lasting shockwaves of the traumas visited on America, and its young men in particular, by the Vietnam war, it’s right up there with the best of American fiction writing. And will almost certainly make it onto my best of the year list.

He watched her go, thinking of the children they had been when they were married. He eighteen, she seventeen. She a half-breed, he a white Texan boy, theirs a romance, Reader had always thought, befitting the romance of the land itself, the wide open spaces and faraway horizons, where the hearts of the young were as big and green as the vast sweep of the eastern grasslands, and the land and the courses of the lives lived on it moved and rolled in ways no man could ever predict, as though the breath of giants were easing over them, shaping them, turning them.

Some reviewers have compared it in terms of subject matter to Cormac McCarthy, which makes me think of…

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. As dystopian novels go, they don’t get much bleaker than this. All plant-life and most animal-life has been destroyed, and the implication is that the earth itself has been so badly damaged that nothing can grow in it. We follow two characters, known only as the man and the boy, as they journey through the devastated land. I was unsure how I felt about this at the time, but it is undoubtedly thought-provoking and full of imagery that has stayed with me – images both of horror and the ugliness of mankind, and of goodness, truth and a stark kind of beauty.

The most recent dystopian novel I’ve read is…

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. Written in 1920, this book gives a prescient look at the potential outcome of the Marxist-style regime that was then coming into existence in Revolutionary Russia. A totalitarian “utopia” where almost all individuality is stripped away and people become nothing more than cogs in a massive machine, and just as dispensable. It’s easy to see its influence on some of the great dystopian novels of the early and mid-twentieth century, like Orwell’s 1984.

I haven’t reviewed 1984 on the blog, but I have reviewed…

Animal Farm by George Orwell. This allegorical fable of the Russian Revolution didn’t work as well for me now as it had done when I first read it in school. But it’s still a great book for younger readers who might not be quite ready for the likes of 1984, and the story of poor Boxer the horse is still just as moving…

Talking of boxers reminded me of…

The End of the Web by George Sims, the hero of which is an ex-boxer. (Yeah, I know that link is pretty strrrrrretched, but work with me, people… 😉 ) From 1976, this starts off as a fairly conventional thriller – ordinary man caught up in extraordinary events – but suddenly veers off in a different direction half-way through, giving it a feeling of originality. Well written and giving a great sense of the London of the time, I thoroughly enjoyed it

The author was apparently connected to the code-breaking facility at Bletchley Park during WW2, which made me think of…

Robert Harris’ Enigma. A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, this story is set amid the codebreakers of Bletchley Park during WW2. A great depiction of the almost intolerable pressure placed on the shoulders of these mainly young men at a time when the course of the whole war depended on their success.

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So Wolf to Harris, via not my kind of thing, Cormac McCarthy, dystopian novels, George Orwell, boxers and Bletchley Park!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

FictionFan Awards 2014 – Literary Fiction

Please rise…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2014 in the Literary Fiction Category.

If you’ve been around the last couple of weeks, you might want to skip this bit and go straight to the awards. But for the benefit of new readers, a quick reminder of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2013 and October 2014 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories

Factual – click to see awards

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Literary Fiction

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2014

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the authors’ next book even if I have to buy it myself!

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

 

LITERARY FICTION

 

Regrettably, this has been the worst year I can remember for new literary fiction. In the entire year, only a handful of books achieved five-star status, and a couple of them already appeared in the FictionFan Shadow Booker Awards 2013. Of course, there might have been hundreds of brilliant books published that haven’t come my way, but I don’t get the impression from around the blogosphere that there are absolute must-reads out there that I’ve missed. Fortunately this dearth has been more than compensated for by the books I’ve read as part of the Great American Novel Quest, the vast majority of which have been superb – presumably that’s why they’re classics. As you will see, this year’s nominees reflect that…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the roadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy

I’m a little surprised to be including this bleak dystopian novel as a runner-up. It is the tale of a man and a boy travelling through a landscape devastated by some unspecified disaster – probably a nuclear winter. At the time I was somewhat ambivalent about it, finding the writing style a little irritating, and feeling that the book thought it was more profound than it actually was. However I also found it “thought-provoking and full of imagery that will stay with me for a long time – images both of horror and the ugliness of mankind, and of goodness, truth and a stark kind of beauty.” And indeed, it has stayed with me ever since I read it, and I find the images have become part of my literary landscape. It’s a book I find myself thinking about and referring to time and again, with the result that my opinion of it has continued to grow, to the extent that I would now count it as a great novel.

Click to see the full review

the road2

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Arzee the Dwarf by Chandrahas Choudhury

arzee the dwarfDespite his lack of inches, Arzee is on the verge of achieving the two things he most wants out of life – to become the head projectionist of the Noor Cinema and to find a wife. But, as the poet tells us, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley. And Arzee’s dream is about to be shattered when the owner of the run-down cinema decides to close it. This is the story of two weeks in Arzee’s life as he faces a future that has suddenly become dark and uncertain.

I loved Choudhury’s prose in this deliciously bittersweet comedy – there’s some beautifully phrased imagery, while the dialogue between Arzee and the various other characters provides much of the humour. Bombay is vibrantly portrayed – the Bombay of ordinary people leading ordinary lives. Though there is depth and even some darkness in the story, the overall tone is light with almost the feeling of a fairytale to it. I found I became more and more enchanted with the book as I read and by the end was fully invested in Arzee’s hopes and dreams. This was truly an unexpected delight of a book and it still, ten months on, makes me smile each time I think of it.

Click to see the full review

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the sun also risesThe Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemigway

Another entry that surprises me, and for the same reasons as The Road – I have found this one has stayed in my mind and my appreciation of it has continued to grow. By all rights, I should have hated it – a macho tale of men being men, drunken quarrels, bullfighting and the ‘lost generation’ of feckless wasters. But…some of the descriptions are excellent – the dusty journey to Pamplona, the passengers met by chance en route all merge to become a strikingly vivid picture of a particular place and time. As they all sit around drinking in Pamplona, I felt I could see the various cafés and bars clearly, almost smell them. The interactions between the ex-pats and the natives are brilliantly portrayed, particularly the growing disapproval from the real aficionados when Brett’s behaviour begins to threaten the traditions of the bullfight. And as for the arena itself, I found I was unexpectedly fascinated by his depiction of the rituals around the running of the bulls and the bullfighting. In the end I found that the picture that eventually emerges of a damaged man metaphorically rising from the ashes through a kind of examination of maleness is really quite compelling after all. And, with the benefit of a little more distance, the book has settled into a permanent place as an unforgettable read, fully justifying its inclusion as one of the best books I’ve read this year…or perhaps ever.

Click to see the full review

Painting credited to 'Matador Painter'
Painting credited to ‘Matador Painter’

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Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

nora websterThe last literary fiction novel I read in the period covered by the awards and so nearly the winner. When we meet Nora, it’s some weeks since her husband Maurice died of cancer, and the story takes us through the next three years or so of her life. Like so much of Tóibín’s writing, this is a small, quiet story, told simply, without big philosophical statements or poetic flourishes. But its simplicity enables Tóibín to create complete and utterly truthful characters – people we feel we have known, may even have been. The book rests almost entirely on characterisation – the plot is minimal. Set in time and place between two of Tóibín’s earlier books, Brooklyn and The Blackwater Lightship, it seems to me that the three can be seen as a loose trilogy, giving a complete and wholly credible picture of the changes in women’s lives in these small communities throughout the second half of the last century. And, of the three books, this is the one I enjoyed most. Nora, while not always totally likeable, is beautifully drawn and her emotions ring true at every step of the way. A deeply moving book, as Tóibín’s always are – not because of any cheap emotional tricks, but because of the clarity and truthfulness of his characterisation. The only book published this year to make the shortlist….

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2014

for

BEST LITERARY FICTION

 

revolutionary road

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Frank and April Wheeler have the perfect 1950s lifestyle – the nice house in suburbia, the two children; he with the daily commute to a good job in the city; she, a home-maker, beautiful and decorative – the middle-class, mid-20th century American Dream made real. But strip away the superficial and we find two people who have failed to be the people they expected to be, who are living every day with the disappointment of what they and each other have become. There is a desperation at the heart of this book – the desperation of rats caught in a laboratory maze.

When I reviewed it, I described this book as a masterpiece, and I hold to that opinion. Yates captures the language of the time so well that I could hear the dialogue being spoken in my head. These words could have been spoken at no other time and in no other place. And yet for all the talking in the book, there’s no sense of communication – each character is ultimately alone, desperately trying to hide behind the image they project. There are moments of quiet beauty in the writing, and an integrity in the characterisation that leads the reader to empathise even when we see them stripped down to their worst flaws and insecurities. And perhaps we empathise most because he makes us fear that we recognise ourselves in there somewhere.

A book that encapsulates a certain time and place, at a moment when the traditional American Dream was about to be shattered and made anew, when roles were changing in the family and in the workplace, when both men and women were trying to figure out how to forge new ways of living in a world where increasing technological advances were rendering the old ways obsolete – this comes close to rivalling The Great Gatsby as my favourite American novel of all time.

A worthy winner indeed – however since, due to being dead, Mr Yates is unlikely to be producing any new novels in the near future, the prize will be that I will read something from his back catalogue – A Special Providence, I think.

Click to see the full review and other illustrations

kate winslet in RR

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Two weeks today: Crime Fiction/Thrillers Award

GAN Quest: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

the road“There is no God and we are his prophets.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂 or possibly 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Ten years before the beginning of the novel, an apocalypse – unspecified but we are given to believe caused by the actions of mankind – has destroyed America and presumably the world. Now our protagonists, named only as the man and the boy, are journeying through the devastated and barren landscape in an attempt to reach the warmer climes of the southern coast before another winter sets in.

On this road there are no godspoke men. They are gone and I am left and they have taken with them the world.

As dystopian novels go, they don’t get much bleaker than this. All plant-life and most animal-life has been destroyed, and the implication is that the earth itself has been so badly damaged that nothing can grow in it. The remnants of humanity survived at first by eating any animals that lived through the disaster and by scavenging through shops and houses for canned or dried food. But as even these sources of sustenance began to run out, the survivors have formed gangs and turned to cannibalism as the only way to survive. The disaster has left the air so polluted with ash and dust that the sun can barely penetrate it, leaving the world grey and increasingly cold. Although nuclear winter is never specifically mentioned, it is implicit, with the result that each breath or drink of water is both life-sustaining and deadly, and the cotton masks the man and boy wear are seen for the entirely inadequate protection that they are. And the man is already coughing up blood.

There were times when he sat watching the boy sleep that he would begin to sob uncontrollably but it wasn’t about death. He wasn’t sure what it was about but he thought it was about beauty or about goodness. Things he’d no longer any way to think about at all.

the road2

In this desperate situation, what is there to hope for? The boy’s mother has already committed suicide and the man hopes that when the time comes he will have the courage to kill the boy and himself rather than see the boy become the victim of one of the gangs. The man and the boy are ‘each the other’s world entire’ – the ‘good guys’ struggling to maintain some kind of moral standard in this hellish existence. And there are hints that the boy, born at the time of the apocalypse, may be more than just a child – that he contains the goodness or perhaps the godship of the world, that his survival is symbolic of some greater survival. In the latter part of the book there is a curious reversal, where sometimes it is the boy who is reminding the man of what is ‘right’, and just occasionally it briefly becomes unclear which is which.

McCarthy tells the story in a kind of simplistic language for the most part, ignoring many of the rules and conventions of grammar. His sentence structure ranges from short, terse sentences to long rambling lists of actions connected by the ‘and’ word…

He took out the plastic bottle of water and unscrewed the cap and held it out and the boy took it and stood drinking. He lowered the bottle and got his breath and he sat in the road and crossed his legs and drank again.

the road3

I must admit I found this tedious in the extreme and for the first third or so of the book really had to struggle to keep going. However, there are also passages of great descriptive power that contain a kind of poetry, a poignant beauty, and gradually the overall effect becomes mesmeric. He builds up the picture of this dead world a layer at a time, like varnish, until suddenly I found I was immersed, not so much in the story as in the debate that is continually running in the man’s head – what is the right thing to do? To die together? To let the boy live and hope that somehow the ‘fire’ that he carries inside him can continue to burn? As the man’s health worsens both he and the reader know that the decision must be taken soon.

The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes. Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.

Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy

I can’t say I wholeheartedly enjoyed this novel. Much of the language grated, some of the references were like being hit over the head with a blunt instrument (drinking the last can of Coke in the world, for example) and the mysticism was so vague that it felt a little hollow. But by about half-way through, I had become completely absorbed by it and have found myself thinking of it repeatedly in the week or so since I finished reading it. I’m not sure it’s quite as profound as it thinks it is, but it is undoubtedly thought-provoking and full of imagery that will stay with me for a long time – images both of horror and the ugliness of mankind, and of goodness, truth and a stark kind of beauty. With just a little uncertainty then, highly recommended…

* * * * * * * * *

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

white_flagI’m struggling with this. Yes, published in 2006, the book was written post-9/11 at a time when the US felt perhaps more threatened than at any other time in her history. But the apocalyptic theme seems more of a throwback to the Cold War than a commentary on contemporary fears. So unless anyone wants to convince me otherwise, I’m saying…not achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

white_flagNo – the theme of post-apocalyptic society is certainly not original, nor is the mystical element of the place of God in a dying society. The language ranges from overly simplistic to poignantly beautiful, but I didn’t find it innovative. Not achieved.

Must be superbly written.

us flagWell…again the quality is variable, but when it’s at its best, the descriptive writing provides some passages of bleak beauty and unforgettable imagery. I think it might take a few months for me to know how this book settles in my head, so I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt meantime, and hesitantly say – achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagOne might want to argue that in some way this book represents the psychological after-effects of 9/11, and in that sense captures the American experience. One might want to…but I don’t. So…not achieved.

* * * * * * * * *

I’m not entirely sure yet whether I think this is a great novel, but with only 2 GAN flags (and one of those I’m still hesitant about) I certainly don’t see it as a contender for the status of The or even A Great American Novel. Unfortunately I can’t remember now why I added it to the original list of contenders, but I’d be most interested if anyone could explain why it has been considered in that context?

* * * * * * * * *

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Great American Novel Quest

Let the Quest begin…

 

Last year I somewhat presumptuously declared in my review that Patrick Flanery’s Fallen Land should be on the shortlist for the title of Great American Novel. One of the reviewers I often chat to on Amazon US asked me which other books I would shortlist. After some humming and hawing, I had to admit that my knowledge of American literature was so woeful that I couldn’t come up with anything other than The Great Gatsby and Roth’s American Pastoral. This led to a series of conversations, both on Amazon and here, about which books were deserving of the title. So now it’s time for me to get better acquainted with some of these books…let the Great American Novel Quest begin!

Great American Novel Quest

Over the next year and probably beyond that, I propose to read a contender once a month or so. Of course, life might intervene as it has a habit of doing, so this will be a fairly flexible target. During various conversations, I’ve built up a little list of recommendations (see below). I’m hoping blog readers will join in by adding to the list of contenders or telling me why the books already on the list shouldn’t be on it after all.

But the first question is – What qualities must a book possess to make it a Great American Novel?

Wikipedia says:

The “Great American Novel” is the concept of a novel that is distinguished in both craft and theme as being the most accurate representation of the spirit of the age in the United States at the time of its writing or in the time it is set. It is presumed to be written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen. The author uses the literary work to identify and exhibit the language used by the American people of the time and to capture the unique American experience, especially as it is perceived for the time. In historical terms, it is sometimes equated as being the American response to the national epic.

Hmm! I like some of that – the representative theme, the American author – but dislike some. I wouldn’t want to restrict it to exclude books written in standard American English, or even in British English for that matter. And I don’t feel it should necessarily be epic in scope. Also, America is such a huge concept with so many different parts that I feel that to ask one book to capture the ‘American experience’ might be too much.

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary says:

any novel that is regarded as having successfully represented an important time in US history or one that tells a story that is typical of America.

Again hmm! That seems pretty broad to me…too broad.

An article by Kevin Hayes in the Huffington Post gives the background to the creation of the phrase as an advertising slogan. Hayes suggests that a GAN should be a ‘national epic in prose’ that would ‘encapsulate the nation’. Hayes adds another requirement:

The Great American Novel should not only be diverse in terms of its subject but also in terms of its aesthetics. A truly great novel requires daring. To write The Great American Novel an author faces a double challenge. He or she must not only tell a story that encapsulates the nation but also tell it in a new way, inventing a mode and method of storytelling different from what other novelists have done before. Novelists with the ambition, talent, and daring to accept this challenge come along only once or twice a century.

No hmm! this time. I entirely disagree with this statement. I find innovative storytelling methods usually lead to books that last for a season rather than eternity, and for me any novel that aspires to greatness must be both timeless and a pleasure to read. (Ulysses, for example, uses innovative language – but is also reputed to be the book that is most often abandoned unfinished.) Vernacular if appropriate, beauty in the use of language certainly, but otherwise stick to the tried and tested. Let the insight be the thing that takes precedence.

So here are the criteria I’ll be judging the books against – each one achieved will gain the book 1 GAN star:-

  1. Must be written by an American author or, since the US continues to be a hub of immigration, an author who has lived long enough in the country to have assimilated its culture.
  2. The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing – therefore, it might be set in a historical (or even futuristic) timeframe but must still say something about the contemporary American experience.
  3. It must be innovative and original in theme – difficult to define originality in words but I suspect we all know it when we come across it. No derivations, no ‘school of’, no banality.
  4. Must be superbly written – I don’t care how insightful it might be; if it’s dull or badly-written, it’s out.
  5. For the elusive fifth star, it must capture the entire ‘American experience’. That is to say, it must seek to include all the various very different aspects of culture that make up the American whole. I suspect this will be an almost impossible challenge, but I hope to be proved wrong.

 

What do you think? Do you agree or do you think I’m starting off on the wrong track? Are there criteria you would add – or remove?

Here are the books that are currently on my list. The first 4 I already own, so they’ll be being read first. After that, the list is subject to change – I’m hoping you’ll help by telling me which books you think should be added and which you think don’t deserve to be considered…

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald – starting off easily with a re-read of a book I already know and love. ‘A portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess, Gatsby captured the spirit of the author’s generation and earned itself a permanent place in American mythology.’

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates‘Like F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, this novel conveys, with brilliant erudition, the poverty at the soul of many wealthy Americans and the exacting cost of chasing the American Dream.’

The Road by Cormac McCarthy‘The Road is an unflinching exploration of human behavior – from ultimate destructiveness to extreme tenderness.’

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain‘All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn, It’s the best book we’ve had.’ –Ernest Hemingway

The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford‘In his third Frank Bascombe novel Richard Ford contemplates the human character with wry precision. Graceful, expansive, filled with pathos but irresistibly funny, The Lay of the Land is a modern American masterpiece.’

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon‘Complete with golems and magic and miraculous escapes and evil nemeses and even hand-to-hand Antarctic battle, it pursues the most important questions of love and war, dreams and art, across pages brimming with longing and hope.’

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson ‘In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames’s life, he begins a letter to his young son, a kind of last testament to his remarkable forebears.’

A Hemingway novel – any suggestions for which one, bearing in mind the American theme? Should Hemingway be included at all?

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck‘A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America.’

Empire Falls by Richard Russo‘In Empire Falls Richard Russo delves deep into the blue-collar heart of America in a work that overflows with hilarity, heartache, and grace.’

American Pastoral by Philip Roth – this will be another re-read. ‘In American Pastoral, Philip Roth gives us a novel of unqualified greatness that is an elegy for all the twentieth century’s promises of prosperity, civic order, and domestic bliss.’

(All blurb extracts are from Amazon.)

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Thanks in particular to Roger Brunyate and Matt Geyer for most of these recommendations. Both Roger and Matt review on Amazon US and I always enjoy our bookie discussions there. (Matt also comments here occasionally, and is the author of his own book, Strays – you can see my review here and, before your quite natural cynicism kicks in, the review was written before Matt and I became online friends.)