The Gathering – Anne Enright

Book #9b

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


TG

Published in 2007, this novel won the Man Booker Prize in the same year and two further Irish book awards the following year.

Set predominantly in Dublin, the narrator is one of the large Hegarty clan, Veronica.  She starts the winding tale with a wistful desire to revisit a specific time in her childhood,

I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen.

And that is the beginning of a long, slow, meander through current day events, Veronica’s memories, thoughts and imaginings.

The main story begins with Veronica visiting her mother in order to tell her that her older brother Liam has died.  Veronica gets this duty from being the “the careful one” and because she is “the one who loved him most” of the siblings.
From this point on, the narrative jumps from the current day to her memories to her imagination and back again.  She spends a lot of time musing about her grandparents, Ada and Charlie, and their contemporary Lamb Nugent. She also recalls many aspects of her childhood and reflects on the way her family was, and how that plays out to their individual present day situations, including Liam’s manner of death.

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Elizabeth Costello – J.M.Coetzee

Book #52

Reviewer: Kara


ECElizabeth Costello is the story of an Australian novelist in her later years. Each chapter of the book features a lecture or debate, hers or someone else’s, as well as discussions and meetings surrounding the central lecture. Elizabeth’s thoughts and beliefs around a series of complex ideas are the threads tying the novel together.

This novel is relatively short in words, but long on ideas and themes. I read it in just a few days, but I spent at least as much time again to digest and gather my thoughts.

“Things can be true, she now thinks, even if one does not believe in them, and conversely.”  Elizabeth’s thoughts and ideas have changed since her youth, confusing the logic of her lectures, but leaving them much more fascinating than clearly articulated, logically-flawless arguments would be. After all, the themes themselves (the difference between humans and animals, the role of the novel, our ability to be the “other”) are messy and complex, not cut-and-dry. Coetzee elegantly navigates these ideas the way a real person who is intelligent and thoughtful, but also immersed in issues beyond easy human understanding, would. The result is a very interesting and interlocking set of ideas that give quite a bit of food for thought.

One idea is the differences and similarities between three categories of “life”: animals, humans, and god(s). In several lectures, Elizabeth argues for treating and understanding animals the same as we do ourselves. She argues that animals have a soul just as humans do. Where her argument (and also, I would say, human understanding) breaks down is when it comes to a difference between humans and animals: reason. Elizabeth argues that the scientific experiments designed to determine if animals can think are not useful because they lack complexity: “We understand by immersing ourselves and our intelligence in complexity. There is something self-stultified in the way in which scientific behaviorism recoils from the complexity of life.”  She says that animal reason is different from human reason, and there is no translation between the two.

Later, the novel discusses the relationship between humans and god(s) and it becomes clear that the major difference between the two is belief. In the final chapter, Coetzee writes “without beliefs we are not human.” Elizabeth also hears from another character that those with difficult lives (those who, unlike immortal gods, will face death) cannot afford not to believe and have faith. This echoes an earlier experience Elizabeth had in Africa where she learns that faith and company in suffering are critical comforts for people. Ultimately, Elizabeth says that all it means to be alive is “to be able to die.” The ultimate difference between humans and gods is that gods are not living.

Compounding these issues is the issue of our ability to be or experience “the other” – to stand in another’s shoes. When arguing that humans can indeed experience life as an animal does, Elizabeth says that “there are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination.” However, when it comes to humans and gods, Elizabeth changes her mind, seeing limits: “the physical mingling of two orders of being… is strictly speaking not possible, not while the laws of nature continue to hold.” She wonders what kind of hybrid being a god must become to allow humans to experience and understand. This argument is echoed later in the final chapter when Elizabeth glimpses beyond the gate to the afterlife and is disappointed to see nothing that is beyond human experience.

The most interesting moment is when Elizabeth describes the way the gods must see humans: “So like us in many respects, their eyes in particular so expressive; what a pity they lack that je ne sais quoi without which they can never ascend to sit beside us!” This is fascinating because it is so clearly the way humans see animals.

The final theme of the book is the role of the novel in allowing us to experience “the other,” for good or for bad. Elizabeth brings together all three modes of being when she says: “All is allegory… each creature is key to all other creatures. A dog … is at one moment a dog and at the next a vessel of revelation. And perhaps in the mind of our Creator… where we whirl about as if in a millrace we interpenetrate and are interpenetrated by fellow creatures by the thousand.” The novel is the ultimate allegory, offering guidance and experience that cannot be had otherwise. Elizabeth explains this most clearly when she describes writers as “secretaries to the invisible,” bringing the unknown to light. Over the course of her life, Elizabeth begins to see danger in this that she didn’t see earlier in life. She begins to believe that evil is everywhere, just waiting to creep into the light, and a novel is the perfect opportunity because, once released, it’s almost impossible to stop: “When the storyteller opens the bottle, the genie is released into the world, and it costs all hell to get him back in again.”

If you’re looking for fun or adventure in your next read, definitely look elsewhere, but if you’re in the mood to have your synapses poked and prodded, I highly recommend Elizabeth Costello. I have tried here in this review to share the themes of this wonderful novel without deluding myself or others that I can tie them up in a neat little bow. Part of the strength of Coetzee’s novel is that it allows Elizabeth to be human. She is a vehement defender of what she thinks she knows, or at least knows for the moment. Like animals, we do not always have reason and even when we do, reason sometimes turns out to be, in Elizabeth’s words: “the monster.”

House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski

Book #67
Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

House of LeavesHouse of Leaves was, quite honestly, the oddest novel I have ever read. It was a mind-bender in both story and style, and when I finished, I felt as though my brain was going to explode. However, don’t take this the wrong way – I thought it was insanely clever and it’s strangeness wasn’t a bad strangeness.

House of Leaves tells a story within a story (and possibly more within more). It tells the story of Johnny Truant, an aspiring tattoo artist who begins to compile the notes of a recently-deceased blind man named Zampano. Zampano’s manuscript is an academic study of a (fictional) film called ‘The Navidson Record’, which captures the explorations of Will Navidson, and various others, into the ever-changing darkness of Navidson’s home. The dimensions outside the house never change, but inside, they do, in an unlikely, impossible,sometimes sudden, and horrific way. Alongside this, are Truant’s footnotes, which are often rambling and confused, echoing the unravelling of the minds of Zampano, Holloway (an expert explorer who attempts to understand the house from the inside), Johnny’s mother (as hinted at in his footnotes, and confirmed in one of the book’s many appendices), and even the madness inherent in the house. There are footnotes within footnotes, and it is lucky that each narrative has a different font, otherwise it would be even more confusing than it already is.

House of Leaves is thought of by some as a horror story

“Since when did you bring a gun?” Navidson asks, crouching near the door.
“Are you kidding me? This place is scary.”

~~~~~~~~~

In the end Navidson is left with one page and one match. For a long time he waits in darkness and cold, postponing this final bit of illumination. At last though, he grips the match by the neck and after locating the friction strip sparks to life a final ball of light.

First, he reads a few lines by match light and then as the heat bites his fingertips he applies the flame to the page. Here then is one end: a final act of reading, a final act of consumption. And as the fire rapidly devours the paper, Navidson’s eyes frantically sweep down over the text, keeping just ahead of the necessary immolation, until as he reaches the last few words, flames lick around his hands, ash peels off into the surrounding emptiness, and then as the fire retreats, dimming, its light suddenly spent, the book is gone leaving nothing behind but invisible traces already dismantled in the dark.

and by others, a love story

…she still cannot resist looking out the window every couple of minutes. The sound of a passing truck causes her to glance away. Even if there is no sound, the weight of a hundred seconds always turns her head.
and I think Danielewski has left this for each reader to decide themselves. For me, I see it as a bit of both. The horror of the house, of death, and of madness are explicit, but the underlining story of Will Navidson and his partner, Karen Green, is too strong to ignore.

The book is structured in a way that is extremely unconventional; Danielewski uses the pages and the space on them to mirror the chaos and madness of the story. As the story advances, each page becomes more unusual than the last; on one, there may be just one or two words, on another, the words slant up the page like stairs, and on yet another, the words are contained within a small box.

As I read, my mind continuously flickered between thinking the story, and ‘The Navidson Record’ , were a work of fiction, and actually real. I’m not ashamed to admit that on one particularly confused evening, I googled the name of the film, just to be sure.

The footnotes and appendices serve to add to the mystery of the novel, and the purpose of them can only be to do just that. Danielewski is a clever, clever writer, and the huge fan base for the novel evidences this.

If you decide to read House of Leaves, do so with an open mind, and an eagerness to be surprised with every turn of the page.

Saturday – Ian McEwan

Book #2

Reviewer: Jon Day 


Well, would you look at this… both Book #1 and now Book #2 from the original list have been reviewed. In doing so we would like to introduce you to our newest reviewer Jon, who blogs over at The Mirror Man, views from a hospital bed. If you like poetry, then you should definitely visit with him. Thanks for joining us Jon.


S

The books which Ian McEwan writes seem to share two features. The first is about how single moments can change things for ever, and the second is about the morality of choices. His novel, Saturday, is no exception. The events in the novel concern a single day and its consequences and there is more than one moral lesson approached in the text.
The protagonist is a man named Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon. Don’t be fooled into thinking such a man has little to do with your life for his thoughts and conversations address issues which affect all of us. And that is the magic of this novel. Everything is relevant to the reader’s life. The plot, great though it is, is secondary, to the soul of the book. McEwan’s use of language is exemplary. Ease of readability runs concurrent with intelligent prose. The book is set in London, one Saturday shortly before the second Gulf war and the invasion of Iraq. McEwan is able to capture both the anti-war feeling and the fear of terrorism prevalent in the public at the time. Throughout the novel he also illustrates the motives behind young people’s apparent disinterest in the bigger issues of the day. As one character notes;

“When we go on about the big things, the political situation, global warming, world poverty, it all looks really terrible, with nothing getting better, nothing to look forward to. But when I think small, closer in—you know, a girl I’ve just met, or this song we’re going to do with Chas, or snowboarding next month, then it looks great. So this is going to be my motto—think small.”

The novel is full of small incidents which build tension and drama, fast and thick observation of all sorts of things. Perowne reveals himself an intelligent man, who counts his blessings over and over. And on this innocuous Saturday we know all is not as it should be. There are portents of doom and we are led to a finale in which the protagonist’s level headedness is tested against the fickleness of life. Our comfort is challenged as McEwan asks us how far civilised men will go to protect what they hold dear. This is a thoughtful and well considered book and I am glad I read it.

April Update

7 books reviewed
138 books in total
863 books to go

April saw the review of Book #1 on the list: Never Let Me Go. This means we now have reviewed the very first book on the list, and the very last (Aesop’s Fables)…as well as a few in between.

Reviews for An Artist of the Floating World, Smiley’s People, The Little Prince, Absalom, Absalom, The 39 Steps and The Tree of Man mean we have reviewed 92 books from the 1900s. Given that this is the section with the largest number of entries, we do have a way to go, but this seems to be our most popular century to review!

Never Let Me Go is the only book from the 2000s that we reviewed in April (although it is the second Kazuo Ishiguro novel reviewed this month, along with An Artist of the Floating World), bringing the number of books reviewed from the 2000s to 18.

We have reviewed 20 books from the 1800s, three from the 1700s, and five from pre-1700s.

I wonder – is it the age of these entries that put us off, or their accessibility (both physically and literary)? Or is it more that we are simply attracted to the more recent works? Something to ponder, as eventually, we won’t be able to hide from the 1800s and earlier any longer!