So far I have found reading on the kobo a very enjoyable experience. I was worried that perhaps reading electronically would not suit hardcore marathon reads, but if anything I think I find the kobo easier on the eyes than most paper books, and I’ve finished 3 books in the last few weeks, which is very very fast for me.
This was no doubt aided by the fact that all three were very good.
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon was a book I picked up courtesy of the 1001 Books list, and I chose it because it was one of the first I found on the kobo. I didn’t really have any expectations, and I’d say that’s a good way to approach this book. It starts with a woman receiving a message from a former lover who has died, and leads into her following a series of oblique clues and coincidences (?) across the country, trying to deciphre a trail that may not exist, a series of connections which may be random, and the motivations of the people around her, who may be genuine or may be hiding something.
If that all sounds somewhat vague, that’s because it is. There’s a dreamlike aura that permeates the book, but it is a carefully balanced trip; the sense of unreality is balanced by unerring characterisation and detail. It is really a book of side-trails and deflections, and at each turn I felt the chance of frustration at the delay, but the strength of the dialogue, the details and the vague sense of forboding hooked me back in.
It’s definitely a book to approach with an open mind. There are few answers and, like a dream, the book treads a tightrope between depth and rambling. Where you fall on that divide might be a personal thing. I found it an enjoyable read and it’s a book I think I’ll revisit again.
Almost the opposite kind of book is Dave Eggers‘ Zeitoun. Whereas Eggers’ first book was full of postmodern flourishes, this book (the third I’ve read by the author) is a very factual, bare bones account of one man’s experiences during the New Orleans floods, based heavily on fact. As with Eggers’ last true-life-based work, What is the What, the simplicity works very strongly in the book’s favour; leaving the protagonist’s experiences to speak for themselves.
That’s not to suggest that there’s an absence of craftmanship here. It takes a great deal of talent to produce “invisible” writing that is both gripping and moving. Zeitoun’s experiences are poignant and powerful. As a muslim in post-911 America, the experiences that he goes through are revealing as to broader US society, and Eggers paints a damning picture of the hurricane’s aftermath and human unkindness and paranoia gone mad. At the same time, it is balanced with hope; both in terms of Zeitoun and his family and those around them. If you have any interest in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, I recommend this book, but it goes far beyond that. It is a powerful, first-person-at-one-remove account of the power of both fear and hope in human interaction.
How to Be Good, by Nick Hornby, is the story of a couple in their late thirties, and the man’s sudden conversion from cynical anger to a more genial, compassionate outlook. Written from his wife’s point of view, it deals with her frustrations at comprehending a husband who she has always wanted to be kinder, gentler, (to the point of having an affair), but whose increasing piety, extending to giving away the family’s possessions and iviting homeless people into their spare room, lead her to question her own commitment to “goodness”, and wonder whether she can actually love somebody who is so irritatingly good-natured.
In the hands of a lesser author, the premise could be awfully hackneyed, and there is a kind of contrivance in David’s sudden conversion that at times threatened to undermine the book’s believability. But Hornby is a smart writer, and he always pulls back just on the verge of stereotype, giving his characters depth and contradiction, and avoiding over-simplification in the way David’s changes play out. Where it would be easy to paint a conservative picture of the dangers of “woolly liberalism” from the events in the book, Hornby is careful to depict both good and bad, and Katie is both a likeable and flawed counterfoil, barbed in her commentary on David’s new life, but simultaneously aware of her own guilt and flaws. And while being good is shown as complex and difficult, in the end the book is not so much about either strengthening or undermining the kind of idealism demonstrated by David. Instead it draws out the conflicting desires within us all.
It’s a very funny book, with a lot of heart, although ultimately perhaps a very bleak book. Perhaps Katie’s character was so well-drawn that I cared for her, and wanted her to find the simplistic kind of hope that David’s view offers, even while the novel deconstructs it. Like Zeitoun, it’s a very compassionate book, but where the former offers a kind of hope in human interaction and kindness, How to Be Good is a more guarded work, holding back from offering any solutions.
Both are highly recommended.