March 23, 2009

Miscellaneous Reading Updates

I haven't been doing well blogging my reading lately. Here are some brief comments on recent selections.

I had high expectations for Graham Swift's Waterland. Before I read it, in fact, it was a leading contender for my upcoming survey course on "British Literature Since 1800," for which I figure I can asssign a maximum of two novels, one Victorian (of course!) and one modern or contemporary. As I'm leaning towards Dickens (of course!) for the Victorian novel, I thought, from what I'd heard about it, that Waterland might make a great pairing with Great Expectations. But I was quite disappointed in the novel. Conceptually, it seemed very dated, for one thing: all that historiographical metafiction stuff felt really innovative in the 1980s but now seems to belabour the obvious (and I should know from obvious in this area, as I wrote both my undergraduate honours thesis and my Ph.D. thesis on relationships between history and fiction as narratives). I found the whole "wow he has a really big penis" plot extremely tedious, the family saga stuff uncompelling, and though I can see lots of ways the watery elements lend themselves to metaphorical play, I just wasn't drawn in enough to want to think it through. This novel has been so widely and highly praised that I'm prepared to assume the fault lies in my reading, not the book, but there we are, or at least there I am.

I was also disappointed in Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, though there at least I did not have such great expectations. The narration is all very smoothly handled, and I thought the ambiguities of the set-up were clever--it does become suspenseful as you try to gage who the listener might actually be and just what purpose underlies the speaker's story-telling. But the absolutely crucial part, the moment in which the narrator turns towards not just fundamentalism but (or so we are led to believe) active hostility towards the U.S., or "the west," seemed to be wholly unearned by what came before: the smile on September 11 does shock the narrator himself, but much of the rest of the novel seemed like retroactive justification for it. The edition I read made comparisons to The Remains of the Day, but the developing self-awareness there is far more convincingly supported by the accidental revelations we receive along the way.

I've been trying to read Midnight's Children. I'm bored by it! It's too digressive, too full of extraneous descriptions (yes, I know, I love Dickens). It lacks momentum. Again, my problem, no doubt, not the novel's. I'll keep trying. But I needed to be reading something for myself that I enjoyed, so I've started Ann Patchett's Run. I'm liking it so far, though it is certainly not capturing my reader's imagination the way Bel Canto did.

I've also been reading more on my Sony Reader. Though I am still a bit disappointed that you have to choose your reading location a bit carefully, I do find that in the right conditions, it is very easy to read on, and I really like the bookmarking and annotating functions. I've just gone through a glossary of terms in post-colonial criticism (sounds like fun, doesn't it?) and I've marked it up so I can quite easily find the bits that I think will be helpful in my analysis of Soueif's In the Eye of the Sun. I am reading a book on Islam and feminism now. I definitely like being able to carry a range of books with me, as I shuttle between home and office all the time and am always debating what to carry along in case I get the chance to squeeze in a little research-related reading. I can certainly imagine reaching a point where it seems annoying that a book is "only" on my shelf somewhere and not on my handy machine.


R. T. said...

When I first read _Midnight's Children_, I was also not very enchanted with the first 100 or so pages. Then, when I became accustomed to (tolerant of) the pace and style of the narrative, I became more and more intrigued with Rushdie's novel. For me, the reading experience was much like Garcia-Marquez's _One Hundred Years of Solitude_ and _Love in the Time of Cholera_ because I had to set aside my preconceived notions (heightened by the hype surrounding the books), and allow myself to be bewitched by the reading experience. Yes, I know that isn't a very sophisticated reading strategy (and contemporary theorists would have little patience with my approach), but my engagement with Rushdie was guided by my understanding of Harold Bloom's advice: I cleared my mind of cant and allowed myself the simple pleasure of reading. The bottom line is this: I thoroughly enjoyed _Midnight's Children_ once I surrendered to its seduction; of course, all readers are different, and your experience with the novel may be completely unsatisfying, but--being the indefatigable "teacher" that I am--I would say, "Give it a chance. You might actually like it."

DreamQueen said...

Ack, sorry for so strenuously recommending Waterland! I hope there are better reads in your (near) future.