Will Self’s The Butt is a really obnoxious book. Trying to be a mixture of JG Ballard and Jonathan Swift and failing is really quite unpleasant. It is the way in which it is knowingly unpleasant which I found particularly off-putting so that the satire hits you over the head and then chucks in some nasty and pointless visceral imagery for good measure. Not my cup of tea, or sick for that matter!
The Museum of Abandoned Secrets by Oksana Zabuzhko is slow moving, turgid, terribly confusing, and you’ll struggle with the names. You won’t know who is having sex and with who, you probably won’t realise they’re having it even. Dire!
In Times of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge got well reviewed but I think it was because the critics liked the sound of the title. Most of the people in this novel – which is a collection of disjointed stories connecting a small group of people in Russia and East Germany – have had hard lives and we are sorting through the rummage of the best and worst bits to create a novel. It is mostly bleak, there is a pervading smell of cabbage and damp served with regret. Lots of people are ill, it isn’t very funny. Is it a true picture? Who knows? But it isn’t much of a read.
Another popular read I didn’t like was Not Thomas by Sarah Gethin. The narrator is a small boy cruelly treated by his drug addicted mother and caught up in her nasty life. Everyone is horrible, the social workers are hopeless even if well meaning and the boy’s only salvation is his teacher, sweet but idealised with her own problems. The book has a sort of plot but the first three quarters is a catalogue of horrors and flat casual violence and neglect. It is set in Wales so everyone knows each other and their business without doing anything about it. The setting is deprived and depraved. Why is it not a better book? First, the narrator is a child and this has limitations as what happens is described not felt and the events have to be simple so we, the readers can knowingly work out what is going on from the boy’s reports. Second, there is not much plot or character development and the ending which wasn’t really convincing come out of the blue. Teachers rarely kidnap children in real life! Third, the sort of happy ending jars – if only life was that easy for abused children. Finally, I didn’t think the writer had much sense of life in this sort of catastrophically dysfunctional family in the sense of getting inside it rather than regurgitating newspaper reports and documentaries. My advice is don’t read it unless you want to be depressed, and probably best not to visit Wales either!
Then, I didn’t like The Road by Cormac McCarthy either. It, like most of his others, is a book which is flogged and reviewed, mostly I suspect by men, who like the idea of a man fighting against enormous odds and impossible forces and even if he loses in the end he made the effort. It takes place in a nuclear winter where everybody is nearly dead and starving and the hero, if you want to call him that, and his young son trekking across this destroyed, empty landscape heading south. I’m not sure why they are going south but it may be warmer. Almost nothing happens that isn’t violent or unpleasant and the story consists of dreadful things happening and being explained by father to son while avoiding cannibals who like to cook young children. Maybe I just don’t like survivalist stories but this is a particularly nasty example of the genre. First off, the boy has a mother who wanders off and kills herself, apparently because she can’t hack being a survivor like Mr Hero. Women have no place in this world but you have the sneaking suspicion that the atomic apocalypse was probably caused by stubborn old men like the hero. Apart from eating children, the bad people seem to have adopted some unusually bad habits including having slaves, keeping a band of shaggable women who clearly cannot cope on their own and some prisoners in chains. Now I think about it, maybe they were next week’s lunch so the book offers no redeeming values in anyone. Maybe you find that merciless drive to survive an attractive feature and I suppose it does include the son which appeals to our emotions but it isn’t a great book and it’s formulaic. The only thing missing was that bit where the grizzly bear / polar bear if a cold climate, comes out of the woods and we get that primaeval fight again … Maybe that’s going in the sequel…
A Horse That Walks into a Bar by David Grossman won the Booker International Prize in 2017 but it lost me. I couldn’t warm at all to the central character perhaps because he was so unlovable and appeared to have been so all his life. I couldn’t see any sense of redemption in it either and I suppose the Israeli settlement background was meant to be edgy but I didn’t get that either. There weren’t many funny jokes either but the one about the man who knows how to make his wife ‘scream’ did make me laugh. Now you’ll have to read the book to find it!
I finished To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris but that is about all I can say. It’s quite long, the dentist is clearly unhappy (like most dentists I expect) and a set of bizarre intrusions into his life appear grindingly slowly to change it so at the end he might be a better person, or maybe not. The Ulms sounded like something from Dr Who and I’ve no idea after reading the book whether they are real or fictional or in any way remotely important. Is it about self discovery, religion or dentistry? I don’t really know. Should you read it? Probably not. Should it have been on a Booker shortlist? Definitely not!
I’m not sure how I got to read Intimate Strangers by Laura Taylor which is an example of the ‘weak confused woman shags superman and life is perfect’ genre. Laura Taylor extends the sex scenes over so many pages you could easily be finished before she is. To do that though you’ll have to go along with this weak indecisive woman and her blossoming relationship with a tough secret agent cum assassin who lives in a posh and secluded high tech community of people who lots of governments would like to kill. She succeeds of course although really she would have been shot and fed to the bears in the forest at the end of chapter 2 and everyone, yes including her mum, live happily ever after. The sex is of the thrusting and moaning type causing waves that overcome people with savage intensity type so you’ll have to decide if that works for you. If you have a long flight, I suppose you could do worse as I did finish it!
In the Dark by Richard Laymon is not the detective story which is now better known but about a plump bored female librarian who starts playing a bizarre game of dare with an unknown person for increasingly large sums of cash. That is a neat idea. So is the notion that as she does this she gets fitter and finds out things about herself she didn’t know before. So far so good. But then it just gets silly as the stakes are increased and I can’t say any more as it will give stuff away but you’ll know where if you read it. I suppose the writer has to live up to his reputation for horror but I lost the plot and then it got even sillier so I skimmed the rest. It’s a book of two halves like some of the people, whoops I nearly gave it away.
I’m on my own in not liking The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P by Adele Waldman. I found it a strange unconvincing book by a woman pretending to be a man who thinks he likes women but is actually nasty to them. He’s also meant to be likeable but is actually a snob, not at ease with himself and superficial. I think the narrator thinks he is human and witty but I thought he was a shit, if we’re allowed to say that. It crossed my mind that the character was gay but didn’t realise it, which could have made the story more interesting, whereas, in fact, it is the lady author writing about male sexuality that provides this odd quality to the writing. Maybe I’ve misunderstood the double bluff and she (the writer) knows how vile he is but that doesn’t come across.
Jojo Moyes is another writer who people seem to like but I struggled with Me Before You. The new plot twist on the old pattern of ‘inexperienced girl meets suave sophisticate who is horrible to her and then comes to realise how lovely she is’ (without giving anything away) didn’t work for me but maybe I wasn’t the intended reader. There should have been a health warning! I thought the (serious) issues were rather trivialised and over-sentimentalised and the characters blatantly stereotyped but I suppose someone might enjoy it and the writing was okay. I couldn’t go with the main character who was sometimes a daft teenager and sometimes a grown-up carer – the character was trying to do too much. Anyway, if you like JoJo’s books you will ignore this completely as she seems to be a bit of a book factory. Funnily enough, there is a nice bit of writing in the front about the healing power of literature which makes me think that she has greater depths and is probably someone like Malcolm Bradbury slumming it!
I didn’t know it when I started reading but Thursdays in the Park by Hilary Boyd is apparently an example of granny lit or matured mummy porn. It’s a grim read in every way peopled by obnoxious characters who Hilary Boyd seems to think are okay while her silly main character bounces off them fretting about whether to bang the bloke from the park for interminable pages while getting bad advice from all and sundry! The sex isn’t worth waiting for either and everything turns out for the best for everyone except the reader!
The Mind Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein is flawed because it takes itself far too seriously. I thought I was going to enjoy this book as I like philosophy as well as reading and I thought this would be a nice blend of the two. Instead, I got a self obsessed Jewish heroine who marries an alleged mathematical genius who doesn’t treat her very well. Then she meets Mr Right who turns out to only like her as a good lay which isn’t enough for her although she is still married. I think the idea of the book is that you can throw in some ideas about the mind body problem and do we exist out there or only in here and then make it manifest in the relationships in the book. As a great believer in the social construction of reality, this all seemed like a lot of contrived tosh after a while and I got tired of the heroine’s introspection and philosophical musings. Also, the whole book takes place against the background of Princeton which is a kind of academic paradise where you go to parties and discuss stuff earnestly and there are no ordinary people with simple values and that all gets rather tiresome after a bit and you long for the real world.