Modern Masters

A Week in December – Sebastian Faulks – 7/10

(how ironic is it to have read A Week in December in June and be reviewing it in my first week off in… December?)

“Gabriel rested his teacup on a ziggurat of his head of chambers’ upcoming briefs and looked out of the window, down towards the river. Swollen with December rain, it was gliding on beneath the lights of the Embankment…”

week in december

From the blurb: London, the week before Christmas, 2007. Seven wintry days to track the lives of seven characters: a hedge fund manager trying to bring off the biggest trade of his career; a professional footballer recently arrived from Poland; a young lawyer with little work and too much time to speculate; a student who has been led astry by Islamist theory; a hack book-reviewer; a schoolboy hooked on skunk and reality TV; and a Tube driver whose Circle Line train joins these and countless other lives together in a daily loop. With daring skill, the novel pieces together the complex patterns and crossings of modern urban life, and the group is forced, one by one, to confront the true nature of the world they inhabit.

The characters in this are a real mix (as I imagine they are supposed to be). The younger characters (Gabriel and Jenny) are the much more sympathetic ones, just getting on with their lives as best they can while still being just generally nice people. John Veals is a piece of work – clever to make someone so inhuman and remorseless. The examination of Hassan’s life, obsession with Islamic theory, and conflict between his modern London life and what he has been taught was interesting and sensitive. The other characters I had forgotten until I read the blurb, but I don’t remember deliberately skipping through any sections of this book until it hit another character. Faulks does well to keep them all appropriately separated.

So this is the first of Sebastian Faulks’ books that I’ve read – even though I have both Birdsong and Charlotte Grey on the shelves. Sometimes it got a bit fanciful and obtuse, but on the whole, eminently readable while obviously skilful. Plotwise this is so-so; it’s really a character study, I think. There is a certain tension added by John and Hassan’s deeds, and various glimmers of romance here and there, but it’s only really there to give the characters something to do.

And as for the setting: this is so very London. And not just very London, but not tourist London, real, people-who-live-here-and-commute-to-work-here London. The far-flung suburbs with their spectrum of class, the postcode giveaway of household earnings. And it’s London December too – no particularly exciting weather, but grey and cold and a bit dreary but nearly Christmas so people are quite cheery and pubs are overflowing.

Good, but I’m not sure I’ll re-read it.

Additional information
Copy borrowed from The Book Accumulator. Finally I can give it back to him.
Publisher: Vintage Books, 390 pages (paperback)
Order A Week in December from Amazon*or Waterstones
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting
Modern Masters

The Lawgiver – Herman Wouk – 9/10

“God was right about Adam: for a man to live alone is not good. I can’t spare a rib.”


Herman Wouk (yes, that Herman Wouk) has been trying to write a novel about Moses for fifty years. As he finally sits down to start, Hollywood comes hurtling into his life; an eccentric billionaire will bankroll a film about Moses if Wouk will approve the script by unknown ex-Jew Margolit Solovei. Margo’s desperation to land the job puts her back in contact with a high school sweetheart and through him, commences a sweet and much-needed confidance with a literary professor. Throw in a naive Australian sheep farmer and a mad English agent; yet somehow romance and creativity prevail over absurdity.

This is really a character study in the somewhat polarised and distorted film world. Margo is a fantastic creation – passionate about her work yet insecure, craving the approval of her father, mentor and idols, yet perfectly happy to throw multiple spanners into works. The novel is tightly cast; no one is extraneous and all contribute to both plot and humour. Possibly my favourite character is gentle-natured Perry Pines, accidentally thrown into the whirlwind of Hollywood, yet clinging stubbornly to the farmland of his youth (“Crooked Creek Farm”).

The epistolatory/”collection of evidence” style of writing is one which I’ve only come across a few times before – it worked very well in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and spectacularly in Salmon Fishing in the Yemenwhile I wasn’t a huge fan of A Visit from the Goon Squad. Suffice to say, the book’s got to be quirky before you can think about using this method. Anyhow, it works here – various voices are developed without that inconvenience of having all your characters in one place, or justifying lengthy monologues/stream-of-consciousness.

Similarly, the technique of the author writing himself into the text as a character is both bizarre and gives him an auto-biographical mouthpiece; his anxiety at running out of time is palpable, as is his deep devotion to his wife of 65 years. In a sense, this has aspects of an open love letter to BSW in the same way that The End of Your Life Book Club is an open eulogy. The humour is strong without being forced – I was safe to read this while having my hair cut (no laugh out loud moments) but plenty of little chortles.

I found the deep-running Jewishness at once bizarre and intriguing, isolating, yet with the footnotes, captivating. This is really a novel about being Jewish, as well as being in the film industry (or a reclusive author, or sheep farmer…). I suspect that Jewish readers might find it overly simplistic or even a little insultingly stereotypical, but I’m not Jewish so I can’t judge.

Now I have to read Marjorie Morningstar.

Additional information:

Advent with Atwood, Modern Masters

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood – 6/10

“Why stir everything up again after that many years, with all concerned tucked, like tired children, so neatly into their graves?”


Iris Chase, heiress to the Chase family button-making business and married off to rival Richard Griffin, takes the opportunity towards the end of her life to revisit her story. Along the way we are treated to excerpts from the book penned by her prematurely deceased and decidedly odd sister Laura, newspaper clippings telling of the untimely demise of multiple family members, and Iris’ life as an elderly lady back in the town where she grew up.

If you’re interested in my thoughts as I went along, here are links to read-along parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

The strands of the book varied greatly for me; I loved Iris’ story as an old lady, reminding me of Moon Tiger, one of my favourite book, as well as having strains of The Help. Gentle, smooth, comfort reading. The newspaper articles were intriguing, moved the plot along smartly and added a sense of location and community and times. Iris’ memories of childhood were the best part for me; Very Dead End Gene Pool with overtones of Blackberry Winter, but more positive. She tells this section very slowly, which strings out the reading pleasure and increases the bitter anticipation of the tragedy we already know will happen. In terms of the pulp novel/sci-fi subplot: I never connected with the people or really understood the relationship – there was a neat twist at the end but I could have lived without it; as for the dreadful fantasty writing…

It became more and more readable as it went along; possibly because there is less and less of the sci-fi story and more of the slow-motion train wreck of Iris Chase’s life. Interspersing it with her days as a pensioner is sort of reassuring because we know that she’s going to get through all the mildly unpleasant parts of her life intact, and we already know that Laura will drive off the bridge so now we’re sort of just waiting for it to happen.

Atwood writes fluently and elegantly but without much showiness; I only noted a few quotes:

“On the main street of Port Ticonderoga there were five churches and four banks, all made of stone, all chunky. Sometimes you had to read the names on them to tell the difference, although the banks lacked steeples.”

“Alone and therefore neglected, neglected and therefore unsuccessful. As if I’d been stood up, jilted; as if I had a broken heart. A group of English people in cream-coloured linen stared at me. It wasn’t a hostile stare; it was bland, remote, faintly curious. No one can stare like the English. I felt rumpled and grubby, and of minor interest.”

and my favourite, which tops this review.

It’s a sad novel; an inevitability of tragedy hangs over the protagonist. I did enjoy the description of life in between-war Canada, the life Iris had before and after marrying new money (it reminds me of something I’ve read recently, a woman who marries for money rather than love… ah – Wallis Simpson).

It turns very interesting from a semi-unreliable narrator point of view;  Iris is quite happily telling us all her marital woes while she fails to notice anything about Laura at all, and fails to protect her from the Richard and Winifred double act. Old Iris’ morbid (she even calls it lugubrious) discussion of her own death interspersed with her observations on her very unhappy marriage adds even more darkness to the domesticity. The marriage is quite oddly unhappy, actually – the dynamic of the traditional over-bearing mother-in-law who won’t let go of her son is occupied by Winifred (“Freddie” – really?) the older sister, which struck me as very strange. Why would Richard choose a wife so far his junior if he enjoys the company of his older sister as a peer? Or is it just poor coincidence that the age gap was so large and really it’s just the Chase business that Richard wanted?

I was so pleased when the sci-fi stopped. I know it was intentionally awful, but still.

The twist in the The Blind Assassin affair reduced Laura as a character for me; she became a little girl once more. The slightly autistic, reserved but also impetuous trouble-maker of the family; no longer a sophisticated woman of intrigue. Iris grew in my eyes to become much stronger, with backbone (which is an odd reaction for me. I abhor infidelity in novels).

The ending felt very rushed. Suddenly Laura was dead, and Richard was dead, and Iris is clearly on the way out herself; either Atwood ran out of time (highly unlikely) or simply decided she was done with the part of the story she wanted to tell.

Thoughts? Thoughts on the book as a whole? on the read-along experience if you joined in? (as a straight-through sort of reader, read-alongs are a very different animal for me).

Additional information:

Advent with Atwood, Modern Masters

The Edible Woman – Margaret Atwood – 2/10 (DNF)

“I had returned from lunch and was licking and stamping envelopes for the coast-to-coast instant pudding-sauce study, behind schedule because someone in mimeo had run one of the question sheets backwards, when Mrs. Bogue came out of her cubicle.”

edible woman

From the blurb: What happens to someone who has been a willing member of consumer society when she suddenly finds herself identifying with the things consumed? … The witty and diverting story of a young woman whose sane, structured, consumer-oriented world suddenly slips strangely out of focus. As a result, Marian McAlpin finds herself unable to eat: first meat, then eggs, and finally even vegetables become abhorrent to her. In this tour de force, Margaret Atwood presents a striking condemnation of contemporary society and of the rampant consumerism that deprives people of both soul and sustenance.

Well, I don’t know at what point Marian starts identifying with the consumer products, but it hadn’t happened by page 100. Until then, she had just pottered along with her existence, her quite strange boyfriend, her fairly dead-end job, her bizarre housemate… so far, the setting has been confusing rather than dystopian. So I lost patience and gave up.

Additional information:

Man Booker Prize, Modern Masters, Prizes

The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes – 8/10

“His action had been unphilosophical, self-indulgent and inartistic: in other words, wrong.”

This review is completely impossible to write. Nevertheless, I shall try. It’s partly my own fault – I read the book in October or November and it’s been lying around waiting to be reviewed ever since.

I don’t want to rate this highly, but I sort of have to. It is so smooth, so readable, and yet so cleverly worded and framed and constructed, that despite the narrator’s almost repulsive self-justification, you HAVE to keep reading.

Tony Webster is an ordinary sort of man, reminiscing now about his time at school and university and the group of friends he had at that time. He drops tiny hints along the way that his account might not be an entirely objective truth, but the scale of his unreliability as a narrator comes as a shock.

Some of my favourite quotes:

“We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well.”

“In the meantime, we were book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic.”

“Yes, of course we were pretentious – what else is youth for?”

“But wasn’t this the Sixties? Yes, but only for some people, in certain parts of the country.”

“One of those suburbs which had stopped concreting over nature at the very last minute and had ever since smugly claimed rural status.”

Fortunately, I have a get out of jail free card on this review, namely – I convinced The Book Accumulator that he must buy and read it, which he duly did in short order, and this is what he had to say about it:

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending, which I read slowly – it was almost meditative – but could not put down. It was justifiably short-listed for the Booker prize; it won, so I suspect the judges were all sixty-year-old men. The narrator recounts his school and student days, and then forty years later has cause to look back at it – as well as at what has happened in the intervening time. I enjoyed the introspective and retrospective view of this life and the narrator’s ruminations as he tries to make sense of one part of his life, until the surprise ending. His hero claims he is average, but it is interesting to judge him as not only above but also below the mean, a limited and not always attractive individual whose memory lapses can be both useful and hurtful. A pleasantly surprisingly short novel about memories and memory and how we view our own history, about changing with age while settling into an ever more ordered and ordinary life, and yet about how life can surprise us, because we just don’t see things as we should.

See? Clever thoughts, articulately arranged. Thanks Dad 🙂

Additional info:
This  copy was borrowed from my magnificent local library.
Publisher: Vintage Books, 150 pages
Order The Sense of an Ending from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards giveaways.
Modern Masters, Prizes

Remembering Babylon – David Malouf – 2/10 (DNF)

“Strange how unimportant eyebrows can be, as long as there are two of them”

In David Malouf’s IMPAC-winning novel (novelette? 182 pages), a group of children in 1840s Queensland happen across a young man, unkempt and racially white, but exhibiting behaviour they and their community expect of the local Aborigines. The community is changed forever by Gemmy’s arrival.

I don’t understand how this won the IMPAC and was shortlisted for the Booker. It’s So Incredibly Uninteresting. I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of the characters, the setting, the writing, just any of it. Maybe that’s a criterion for book prizes.

Each chapter is from a different character’s point of view – we get Gemmy, Lachlan (the boy who found him), Janet (Lachlan’s jealous cousin), Jock (Janet’s father), the teacher… and none of them is an interesting person by themselves. There are some vague hints of interesting colonial life (dialogue is written in a strange Scotch hybrid sometimes) but it’s not explored. The writing is… meh. It’s not even exhilerating writing.

Urgh. Take it away from me.

Additional info:
This  copy was bought from a charity shop.
Publisher: Vintage Books, 182 pages
Order Remembering Babylon from Amazon if you can bear the tedium*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards giveaways.
Kindle, Modern Masters, Read-a-longs

The Great Gatsby – Read-a-long Part 2

“Perhaps it’s because she doesn’t drink. It’s a great advantage not to drink among hard-drinking people. You can hold your tongue and, moreover,  you can time any little irregularity of your own so that everybody else is so blind that they don’t see or care.”

Catching up with Wallace’s read-a-long of The Great Gatsby:

This middle section is quite strange. There’s a fair piece of character exposition on Gatsby; all the parties, Daisy’s history with him, his warming to Nick.

I’m not sure what function Jordan Baker is serving in all of this; she seems to be a vaguely interesting confidante-type information conveyor. FSF makes her interesting in that she lies and drives terribly, but mostly she seems to be there to give us Daisy’s history with Gatsby.

As for the dreadful tea party: ohmygoodnesstheawkwardness. Eeek. No wonder poor old Nick wanted to just leave them to it and go for a wander in the rain. But why is Nick so overawed that he permits himself to be pushed around like this by Gatsby? Gatsby is clearly a bit clueless and puppy-in-love-ish, but even Nick could have seen that Daisy would not be comfortable having Gatsby restored to her so suddenly, and what good could come of it?

Not so sure.