I committed to reading (approximately) a book a week in 2012. Here’s how it’s going plus capsule reviews of my January selections.
Standard disclosure: I bought all four of these books. Each is included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.
4 down, 48 to go!
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
Dividing the last century into distinct moments in time, Hollinghurst’s fifth novel, like its characters, revolves around magnetic poet Cecil Valance (a fictional substitute for, depending on your favorite era, Byron, James Dean or Jim Morrison), doomed to die young/stay pretty, leaving plenty of tantalizing unanswered questions. Like the later plays of Tom Stoppard, The Stranger’s Child explores the idea that there are limits to what we can understand, remember or capture of the past.
Hollinghurst’s prose, as always, is delicious. On the back book jacket, The Observer recommends Hollinghurst as “a great English stylist in full maturity.” If you followed the Man Booker Prize flap last year, you may recall that a number of writers who’d made the long list, Hollinghurst among them, were dismissed with snippy comments about “fustiness” and readability. Don’t let that nonsense spoil a tremendously enjoyable read for you. Only someone who hasn’t read this book might think that because – gasp! – part of the story takes place in the past. Or because, long an admirer of Henry James, Hollinghurst has been compared (favorably) with the master novelist, especially in his Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty. Perhaps this year’s judges felt Hollinghurst already had received his due, and it was someone else’s time in the spotlight. Of the books I’ve read from the short list, only Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers comes close to Hollinghurst’s brilliance.
Yes, this is Hollinghurst in “full maturity” – prose burning with life and celebration and aching beauty.
I Think I Love You by Allison Pearson
Pearson, who writes with poignancy and humor about women’s lives, often gets relegated to the “chick lit” category. Her first book was the excellent I Don’t Know How She Does It, about the difficulties of juggling career, motherhood and marriage. Here she extends a kindly hand to our younger selves in a novel drawn from her own teen obsession with David Cassidy. Told with great insight in alternating chapters by Petra, starstruck Welsh teenager and dedicated reader of The Essential David Cassidy fan magazine, and Bill, a wannabe rock journalist and sole staff of TEDC fanzine, mortified and fascinated by his role feeding the teen dream machine, ghostwriting David Cassidy love messages to “The Partridge Family” star’s credulous young admirers.
You needn’t have been a “David girl” to enjoy, empathize (I was a Jack Wild fan who occasionally tuned in to “The Partridge Family”) or find perspective in this tribute. Obsession, as any fan of Nabokov will tell you, is the perfect subject for compelling literature. This novel takes an unexpected, but helpful turn mid-way when the plot moves from the 1970s to modern times, so that fandom can be explored from a more mature distance, making puppy love just one of the awkward, painful and joyous paths our hearts take through life.
P.S. For those who were or are David fans, the afterword includes Pearson’s 2004 Daily Telegraph interview with the real David Cassidy.
Ablutions by Patrick deWitt
As noted above, I found deWitt’s latest, The Sisters Brothers, to be a brilliant surprise. When you discover an author with an original voice, you tend to seek out his other writings. DeWitt’s author bio says he’s been employed as “a laborer, a clerk, a dishwasher, and a bartender.” It’s this last career that Ablutions studies. Set in a down-on-its-luck Sunset Strip bar, the novel observes the patrons and their desperate attempts to gain a toehold on the Hollywood ladder. “Semi-successful Hollywood actor-writer” Lancer returns to gloat once he’s had a taste of the good life, and tells the barkeep why he won’t be back: “I have dreams, you know? Big dreams. And none of them were going to come true in a place like this.”
Told in second person through a haze of drugs and Irish whiskey, still Ablutions rarely reminds you of that other second-person first novel, Bright Lights, Big City. DeWitt channels an earlier generation of American writers – he sees with fresh eyes even when his characters have felt too much abuse from the world – and you sense he’d be perfectly at ease penning his tales alongside Twain, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. For instance, observing the Grand Canyon, the narrator of Ablutions notes: “You were not prepared to feel anything other than pedestrian amusement, and it weakens you in your spine and legs. Clutching your stomach through your shirt you say to yourself, There is too much of the earth missing here, and I just don’t want to know about it.” This is a writer whose books I’m looking forward to relishing for decades to come.
Equator by Miguel Sousa Tavares
I love how books find their way to you and you to them. Friends’ parents were visiting from Brazil over the holidays, and we got to talking about all manner of things, from the Portuguese language to the history of Brazil to books. My friend’s father, who recommended Equator for its look at Portugal’s late colonial period, noted that in the Portuguese language, meaning is not as black-and-white as it is in English. It makes translation and understanding a little harder to pin down.
That is handy to keep in mind when reading Equator. The novel follows a young aristocrat, Luis Bernardo, selected by the king to put his liberal ideas of colonialism into practice as the new governor of Portugal’s tiny West African equatorial outpost São Tomé and Príncipe. Immediately upon setting foot on the islands, his dogmatism crumples along with his dignitary’s uniform: “His shirt stuck to his skin and his cream alpaca Savile Row suit had lost the discreet elegance and intended allure. He was exhausted, made drowsy by the intoxicating smell of greenery that made the atmosphere even heavier and more humid.”
The impenetrable jungle and stifling heat are but two of Bernardo’s challenges. He must learn the islands’ complex social and cultural mores, make peace with his own staff, convince the islands’ plantation owners to end their system of importing slave labor from Angola in order to prevent the British from boycotting São Tomé’s lucrative cocoa exports, and prevent a violent workers’ rebellion. For a start.
Perhaps the quote that opens the novel sums up Bernardo’s situation best. It tries to pin down the definition of the word equator, noting: “Possibly a contraction of the expression in old Portuguese, ‘e-cum-a-dor,’ that is, ‘it brings pain.’”
The novel is a fascinating read, rich in historical, cultural and atmospheric details of both early 20th century Portugal and the islands.