This is the first disappointment of the year. I was really hoping to be blown away by Karl Ove Knausgaard’s first volume in his autobiographical My Struggle series. Alas, I really did not get on with Death in the Family. I can sort of understand the fascination and veneration of a writer trying to convey life in its truest, realest form, mundanity and all. But huge swathes of this 500-page book were frustratingly tedious. I managed to finish it, just (!), and only because I skim read the final 200 pages and forced myself to get to the end. Part of me is still curious to see how Knausgaard has managed to sustain this form of shapeless storytelling over six books, however I think my reading energies would be better satiated elsewhere.
1933 Was a Bad Year by John Fante
After the drag that was Death in the Family, I felt like a quick read to cleanse the palate. I had originally picked up Knausgaard’s novel as I was looking for some dirty realism in a similar vein to my beloved Charles Bukowski. So when I was browsing in a local book shop and spotted this John Fante novella, I thought this could do the trick. After all this edition of 1933 Was a Bad Year actually features a Bukowski quote on the cover. I am happy to report Fante did in 100 pages what Knausgaard couldn’t in 500. 1933 is a simple, taut, gut-wrenching tale of teenage Dominic who dreams of escaping the hopeless lower-class realities of home to play in the big leagues of American baseball. This is American writing at its finest. You can open this book up to any page and find a sentence worth re-reading, worth savouring. Here is a little from the opening paragraph:
“Wading home that night through flames of snow, my toes burning, my ears on fire, the snow swirling around me like a flock of angry nuns, I stopped dead in my tracks. The time had come to take stock. Fair weather of foul, certain forces in the world were at work trying to destroy me.”
Now I really want to read Fante’s Bandini Quartet.
The Fall by Albert Camus
I bought Albert Camus’s 1956 novel The Fall along with the Fante novella mentioned above, and read both over one rainy weekend in February. I had only read one Camus novel previously, arguably his most famous The Outsider. The Fall tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Clamence. Over several drunken nights in an Amsterdam bar, Clamence regales a chance acquaintance with his story. From this successful former lawyer and seemingly model citizen a compelling, self-loathing catalogue of guilt, hypocrisy and alienation pours forth.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Another first for me. Ursula K Le Guin sadly passed away this January. She was a SFF author I had been wanting to read for years, especially as she was greatly admired by two of my favourite authors Neil Gaiman and China Mieville. As I was recently in a sci-fi mood I thought I’d start my Le Guin journey with the Hugo and Nebula award winning The Left Hand of Darkness, which is set on a wintry planet inhabited by ambisexual beings. The novel incorporates feminism, political diplomacy, and anthropology, and manages to remain a thought-provoking page-turner despite its odd structure of first-person narratives interspersed with chapters which are presented as brief histories/myths related to the planet of Gethen. A true sci-fi masterpiece from the 60s that still feels relevant today.
Ubik by Philip K. Dick
The sci-fi theme continues. I’ve only read a handful of Dick’s 40-odd novels, but what I have read, I’ve greatly enjoyed. In fact, I wrote parts of my undergraduate dissertation on his most famous novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick has a very idiosyncratic style of writing. He can be quite brusque, generally terse in that he will often present mind-boggling technologies/concepts and explain little along the way. You just have to dive in and figure things out for yourself. There’s always a feeling of dread and paranoia that permeates his prose. He is not an author I can just pick up and casually read. I usually need to be in quite a particular mindset, and it seems as if I have been in that particular mindset as of late. Along with Androids, A Scanner Darkly, and The Man in the High Castle, Ubik is often celebrated as one of his masterworks. Looking forward to reading this one soon.
The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham
Back in December I picked up my first Wyndham novel, The Chrysalids, which I read last month. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s quite a straight forward book, but I loved the mix of mutant teenagers in a puritanical English pastoral setting. Wyndham’s style of writing reminded me particularly of H.G. Wells. All in all, a solid read. When I saw The Midwich Cuckoos was less than €5 on bookdepository.com, I purchased immediately. From the synopsis, Cuckoos sounds like it carries over some of The Chrysalids’ themes of aberrant children growing up in a conservative countryside village. Mentioned in a previous book haul too, but I love these Penguin Wyndham covers. Hoping to collect as many of these as possible.
What are your February book haul highlights?
Have you read any of the books mentioned above?
Let us know in the comments section below.