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May 11, 2012

A Decent Read – suggestions for a quiet break

by Val Reynolds

How often are you at a loss to know where to find a good book. What is a good book? To me it’s one I can lose myself in. All the angst of the day goes to the back of my mind. So a book at bedtime is a joy and pleasure. But I’m not prepared to read books that don’t satisfy my curiosity, don’t stimulate my interest, or from which I learn nothing new.

So we have decided to provide our assessment of books we have enjoyed, or not. Short, pithy asides and plaintive squeals of dismay are included, so you don’t have to waste time turning off at page ten. That’s the crunch time for us … unless page eleven beckons that tome is passed on to Oxfam, or some such charity shop where maybe someone will view our assessment with disdain and totally disagree with us!

Here are three books all read and finished and assessed by Les Tucker, our intrepid bookaholic.

A Small Circus  Hans Fallada* One of the Penguin Classics ISBN 978-0-141-19655-8 *Other books by Fallada

Do not read A Small Circus expecting a similar experience to the later Alone in Berlin.  Fallada’s portrait of life in wartime Berlin is a universal tragedy which is impossible to ignore.

A Small Circus, published in 1931, is just that: a much more parochial examination of politics in a small town.  It is a local eye’s view of the collapse of the Weimar Republic  (Germany’s first democracy) leaving a situation ripe for the rise of National Socialism, and subsequently, the promotion of Hitler.

The book is not a dry history.  It is full of sardonic humour, as pompous local officials tussle over bribes and ill-gotten gains.  Outside the little town, the country is spinning off its axis, but a greedy bunch of politicians and journalists seem not to care.

The greater proportion of the novel is written in dialogue, so there is no authorial voice.  In many ways, this worked to Fallada’s advantage, as his breakthrough novel received praise from both sides of the political spectrum. It appeared as if he was not taking sides, although a modern reader might beg to differ.

A Small Circus may not make you laugh very often, but it might have you nodding with agreement at the portrayal of human foibles and frailties.

  Noughties  Ben Masters  Published by Penguin ISBN  978-0-241-14526-5

Ben Masters’ novel is helpfully divided into three sections, entitled; “Bar”,  “Club” and “Pub”.   My advice to the reader would be to stay in the Bar !

Imagine a dodgy episode of Skins combined with a literary pub quiz and half an episode of Morse chucked in for good measure.

This is Oxford, but beyond the colleges, overheated young things are drinking themselves into oblivion, clumsily bonking each other, but then spoiling the whole experience by agonising about it!

Noughties is a Top Trumps pack of literary references and allusions.  Forget about the narrative, just play spot the disguised quotation.  The protagonist, Eliot Lamb (get it?) is trying to resolve the dilemma of his love life.  As his journey to the light includes such evocative meetings with the opposite sex as, “She places her warm breath inside mine..” one can only hope it is achieved speedily.

There are lots of topical music references and characters spend an inordinate amount of time texting.  You don’t need to join Eliot Lamb in his final days at Oxford to enjoy the richness of that experience !  Try the Open University.

  The Pale King  David Foster Wallace   Penguin   ISBN  978-0-141-04673

Did you ever read the one about the American Internal Revenue Regional Examinations Centre ?   No … and I wonder how many people will actually finish The Pale King.  The author didn’t, as he died in 2008 before it was completed.  This edition has been assembled and published by his editor, Michael Pietsch.

Try this chapter opening :

“Until mid-1987, the IRS’s attempts at achieving an integrated data system were plagued with systemic bugs and problems, many of these exacerbated by Technical Branch’s attempts to economise by updating older Fornix keypunch and card-sorter equipment to handle ninety-six column Powers cards instead of the original eighty-column Holleriths.”   Come on … keep up !

Wallace is feted as a truly great writer, especially in his love for precision and meaning.  This unfinished work is about boredom and sadness, but as it stands it is too great a challenge to the reader.  The tedium of the daily tasks of the IRS is plain enough.  It is detailed in well over 500 pages.  There are jokes, lots of jokes, strange observations, descriptions, and even characters, but this is still a novel about tediousness, and it is act of daring to leave the reader to extract from it the individual stories within.  For many, the doors of the tax return processing centre will remain closed. For the legions of Wallace’s admirers, this unfinished work may well achieve the status of an icon.  If you enjoy James Joyce, you’ll love this.  If not, then tax avoidance may be the answer.

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