Monday, 22 February 2010

Browsing the Bookshelves

The great thing about staying in other people’s houses is being able to browse through their bookcases. Staying with friends who work for publishers is even better because their shelves are stuffed with books not yet available to the public, as well as those must-reads you never got round to buying when they first came out. So my bedtime reading list has been very mixed. I’ve read two Niall Williams books that came well recommended, but found them rather too romantic for my taste - Four Letters of Love and As it is in Heaven. Less gritty than Frank McCourt, less literary than John Banville, but the Irish love of words is there as well as the sentiment. If you want tears and laughter, a really indulgent evening with chocolate and a glass of wine, a hot water bottle and an early night, Niall Williams is your man.
Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favourite American authors so I fell on her latest novel Lacuna eagerly, only to be disappointed. It’s her first book for several years and is the story of a young boy brought up in Mexico and America by his mercurial mother and a series of step-fathers. As a young man Harrison W. Shepherd - otherwise known as Solito - lives in the household of Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera during the period when Leon Trotsky and his wife were staying there. This is the most interesting part of the book. He grows up to become a writer, then falls foul of the McCarthy inquisition. I won’t reveal the ending, only say that I found it very unsatisfactory and a bit of a fudge. But it was the structure of the novel that really failed me - the story is told in a variety of voices and styles - letters, diaries, third person report, newspaper clippings as well as traditional narrative - and the fragmentary style frustrated me. I simply couldn’t get involved. I was also aware that Kingsolver was writing a parable about American politics which, towards the end of the book, almost became a diatribe. Maybe she is so famous now that editors feel unable to suggest cuts - this book needed a really good editor.
I’ve also been having a binge of junk reading. My agent is also the agent for Michael White, so I tried one of his thrillers - The Medici Secret. As its title suggests, its in a similar vein to Dan Brown, but isn’t so well plotted and I found the central hypothesis totally unbelievable. I won’t be reading any more.
Now, back to the bookpile for more bedtime reading!


  1. Am also reading The Lacuna at the moment, Kathleen, and I'm having a very similar reaction. The first section, which covers the central character's Mexican boyhood, has echoes of early Isabel Allende and Latin American magical realism. But Allende has already been there, written the book - and rewritten it. I shall have to return to The Poisonwood Bible to remind myself what a truly excellent writer Kingsolver can be.

  2. I'm so glad it's not just me! The structure just didn't work at all. Like you, I think the Poisonwood Bible was wonderful (though there is that last section that is almost another novel). My favourite book of hers is Animal Dreams.

  3. I just made a horrible face when I read the title 'As it is in Heaven'! I'm sure it's lovely for indulgence as you say, but what a terrible title.

    I like your pile of books picture and the tulips which are gorgeous. Do you have plans to read the Larsson book soon? 'Heresy' looks pretty indulgent and yummy in a dark, historical kind of way.

  4. Hi Jodie - yes, I agree about the Niall Williams title - he's a little too much saccharine for me. Next up is Heresy and then the Larrson trilogy. Just as soon as I've marked a pile of student assignments!