On the bookshelf: October

The leaves are turning brown, the nights are drawing in, and it’s a great time to pick up a book. So here are a few I’ve read over the last month…

Vita Cola via Flickr

Vita Cola via Flickr

Literary prizes are a funny thing. And so, while we’re at it, are movie and music awards. For example, rewind back to 1997, where a giant blockbuster called Titanic swept the boards at the Academy Awards. Best Director, Best Picture, Best Song (but not Best Actor, sorry Leo). Now, over a hundred years after the events it mirrors rather less than exactly, and sixteen years after its release, it’s easy to spot the ropey dialogue, glaring historical inaccuracies (the family of William Murdoch will no doubt be delighted to hear the constellations were the only thing James Cameron changed for the 2012 re-release) and implausible romance (they knew each other for three days! There was loads of room on the door!)

Still, that’s not to say I think Titanic is a terrible film. If you told me it was on TV this second I’d cancel all other plans and vegetate for three hours. The story it tells overpowers all the dodgy stuff (I may have mentioned, I’m a Titanic aficianado).

But it does show something else. The films, books and other works of art that win prestigious awards are not always the best ones produced in any given year. Nor do they always the stand the test of time. Sad to say I think this will be the ultimate fate of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, 2011’s Pulitzer Prize winner.

Like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, the book tells a number of interconnecting stories and plays with notions of time and subjectivity. Unlike Cloud Atlas, it’s a much shorter read and is less emotionally affecting. I can hardly remember much of it now, and I only read it about three weeks ago. Not a good sign.

Yeah. Powerpoint is a literary device now. (Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr)

Yeah. Powerpoint is a literary device now. (Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr)

The book opens with New Yorker Sasha, whose big secret is that she likes to steal things. Sasha works for the ageing and sleazy record producer Benny Salazar, and through him and Sasha we jump to the past and future, to people who touch their lives, however briefly. There’s a reason why no book blurb sums up the story; you can’t. A Visit From the Goon Squad is essentially a collection of interconnected short stories. If you find yourself thinking halfway through, “Who’s that?” a blogger called Gillian has created a flowchart of characters. 

With things like this, there are always going to be stories you enjoy more than others. The infamous Powerpoint chapter (yes, I said Powerpoint, the Microsoft programme beloved of business executives and lazy students) actually worked for me. However, I wished, as I read the description of desert nights in Arizona, that it had been told in a more conventional way.

Sasha is an interesting character, and we see through others (her uncle Ted, in one of the books highlights, reluctantly going to Italy to find his errant niece) intriguing hints of damage and her less-than-perfect marriage. Her husband, college sweetheart Drew, is hiding a hell of a secret. But while the chapter detailing the death of her college friend Bobby is heartbreaking, we don’t get enough of an insight into these characters lives to be truly affected by anything they do.

For me, the greatest problem with post-modern fiction is all this playing with words and form actually get in the way of telling a story. The heart has been chipped away. And that’s not to say using new tricks is a bad thing. No-one wants to go back to the old seventeenth-century-method of the author humbly beseeching his reader to ignore the fact that he is a loathsome worm and a poor scribe, because all that he is about to chronicle did happen in the county of ——-shire, in the year….

But while modern music, especially electronic music, has not sacrificed emotion for bells and whistles (as any fan of acts like the xx or Bat For Lashes would tell you), it seems more acceptable to be distantly high-minded in literature. There’s a great affecting and emotional tale here about the ravages of time (the goon of the title) but despite Egan’s marvellous crisp prose, I ended up closing the novel with two words on my lips; “So what?”

Brain cupcakes do not feature in World War Z (via craftster)

Brain cupcakes do not feature in World War Z (via craftster)

The story is the thing in World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks. Recently made into a blockbuster starring Brad Pitt, it’s probably as far away from Pulitzer Prize winning fiction as you’re going to get, but still a rollicking read. 

Max Brooks wrote this book, based on the iconic World War II oral history The Good War, after doing a lighthearted zombie survival guide. However, this book takes the zombie threat far more seriously, and is less about ‘Zack’ than it is about humankind and our current, unsustainable mode of living and governance.

This too, has an unconventional narrative. Essentially a compendium of survivors’ accounts of the recent zombie war, it achieves the unlikely feat of becoming utterly realistic and subtly unnerving.

Zombies have become a mainstay of popular culture, but we all know that a zombie apocalypse could never happen. Once you’re dead, you’re dead, right? Brooks makes it seem somewhat plausible, and what’s even more plausible is how humanity reacts.

The outbreak begins in China, and we hear from a doctor who is charged with treating one of the first victims, a young child.  Despite having no pulse, the victim has supernatural strength and has only one aim; to bite the living.

It’s very clever how Brooks takes observations from the real world and applies them to the zombie war. Things, that despite the legions of zombie movies in our culture, many of us had never thought of. For example, how would free and open trade hinder or help the zombie plague? Would Christianity react as if the day of judgement was on us (Revelations does focus on the dead getting out of their graves after all)? What of global trouble-spots like Israel, or the Kashmir borderland between Pakistan and India, or the truly scary communist state of North Korea? (Hint: it’s even scarier after you read this). What about the disconnect felt in modern society, the commercialism, the isolation of the internet age?

And what do zombies do underwater or in snow drifts?

In many ways this book is less about zombies and more about humankind, and how we must overcome our myriad flaws and learn to live together. It sounds like a very deep message for a horror novel, but it’s there all the same.

While the descriptions of the zombies are suitably gory and nasty, the really unnerving moments are more subtle; the Redeker plan,  Phalanx, the recollections of a mentally disabled girl called Sharon are just some of the moments that gave me the shivers.

World War Z isn’t perfect though. If you’re not au fait with all things military, you might find some of the descriptions of weaponry baffling. And all too often, the individual voices of the people interviewed sound remarkably like the other interviewees, so that a young American refugee talks the same as a CIA agent who talks the same as a Chinese doctor. Despite these flaws, it’s a highly enjoyable and eerie read.

Max and Adam visit the beautiful Victoria Falls on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe (rapidtravelchai via Flickr)

Max and Adam visit the beautiful Victoria Falls on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe (rapidtravelchai via Flickr)

Finally, The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder by JW Ironmonger is a moving read, despite its quirky name (quirky names seem to really be in vogue in the last few years. I blame A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian myself). It’s no spoiler to reveal that the Maximilian Ponder of the title is dead. The narrator, his childhood friend Adam, decides to put his side of the story forward, before the police come.

An old adage holds that the poor might be mad, but the rich are merely eccentric. Max is a prime example; on his twenty-first birthday he decided to lock himself into the family home and catalogue everything in his brain thus far.

As you might expect, such a project is virtually impossible, and rather than the three years he expects, it takes Max the rest of his life. He employs Adam as an assistant to look after his legal affairs and property (Max is the sole heir of a very large fortune). However, Adam must obey a number of conditions. He must not ever let the outside world intrude on Max, who wishes to only catalogue the period until he turned 21. And he must never let the world of today contaminate Max’s mind; so more than thirty years pass and Max has no idea that the Berlin Wall fell, or that there were two wars in Iraq, or that 9/11 happened.

For example, Adam accidentally refers to the Prime Minister as ‘she’ during Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as the British leader and this leads to days of recrimination.

Despite being a very high concept novel, there’s a lot of heart here. Both Adam and Max spent a large part of their childhood in Kenya and Ironmonger (who himself grew up in Kenya) captures the continent beautifully. Despite the massive social and political upheaval back in their native England, 1960s Africa for these two boys is a cocoon of the British Empire. The absurdity of trying to make such a alien landscape English is sketched wonderfully.

Max and Adam encounter horrors in Africa that their young minds can scarcely comprehend. This, and a series of horrifying family tragedies, make Max withdraw from society.

If this all sounds grim, it isn’t. There’s a wonderful lightness of touch here and despite the seriousness of themes like death and the unreliability of memory and the mind, at its core it’s a story about seizing life and the wonders around us before its too late.

Because there are all too many Maximilian Ponders out there, afraid to die and not living at all.

I’ll be reviewing Niamh Boyce’s The Herbalist over the next few days. I’m moving house so things will be a bit up the wall until I’m settled. 

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