Sunday, July 27, 2008

About reading

It's 18 months since I began writing weekly short reviews for the Sydney Morning Herald so that means I've read 304 new novels, not counting other reading, since the beginning of last year. They come from everywhere, translated from the French, German, Turkish, Danish, Italian, Swedish, you name it. (A lot of the novels out of Asia that find their way to Australia are written in English to begin with and arrive via the big Western publishing houses.)

If what arrives in parcels and boxes on my doorstep is to be believed, the fiction currently being written is mainly either chick lit of wildly varying quality, or novels about some aspect of the Second World War; the quality of the latter is more even and overall much higher. More than sixty years after it ended, WW2 is still coming out of the national and international consciousness of its heroes' and victims' children and grandchildren in the way that a vast, deep bruise will show up and blossom horribly on the surface of your skin over a long time in the wake of the original injury.

And so it was that today I found myself finishing a book I'd read by force of will, holding my nose: a bit of strident Noo Yawk chick lit in sub (very sub) Sex and the City mode. I'd struggled through more than 350 rambling pages peopled with incredibly annoying characters whining about lerve and how hard it was to find and men and how awful they were, all in the rowdy, fake-bright voice of a narrator whose values could only be described as diseased.

With a small prayer of thanksgiving, I put this book down and picked up the next one. 'As for me,' I read on Page 2, a mere handful of paragraphs in,
I don't know yet either that in ten years' time, I will recognise, in a heap of pairs of spectacles almost five metres high at the Auschwitz Memorial, the frames that my father slipped into the top pocket of his jacket, the last time I saw him ...


Helen said...

Is it OK to skim, or skip, if it's as bad as the noo-yawk chick lit one? or is that Verboten under the Code of book reviewers?

Pavlov's Cat said...

I try not to do it and almost never do, but I have got quite good at sort of pre-skimming to see whether there's an important bit I'm not reading carefully enough, and I can read very fast. Varying reading speeds was something one had to learn to do to survive in a lit degree because you really have to read poetry at about a quarter the speed you read fiction. With the bad novels, unfortunately Murphy's Law says if you cheat and skip, you will get caught out saying something grossly inaccurate about the plot. Or worse. And yes, one does owe it to the writer to give his/her book a decent go, no matter how awful it is.

It's doubly important now that the American writers in particular auto-google every five minutes, and if my review is online they don't hesitate to track me down, email me and give me their views. Frankly I think this is incredibly naff.

Very few of the chick lit novels are this bad -- some of them are very clever and funny -- and I only dislike this one because it's about the kind of woman I can't stand.

M-H said...

Oddly, I was just thinking out loud this morning, as I read Spectrum, about how many books you must read in a year, and wondering how you do it. Synchronicity. I look forward to seeing what you have to say every week.

Also WW2 books - yes! And we are Foyle's War tragics too. This evening's ep. was very sad, reflecting presumably sadness and despair of that last year of the war.

Anonymous said...

As a reviewer, do you still read for pleasure?

And when reading books for review, do you have a special place to do so, or is it just as easy to do in bed, at a desk or on a park bench?


Pavlov's Cat said...

"As a reviewer, do you still read for pleasure?"

Absolutely, just not as much, because of course there's less time. And many of the books I read for work are a pleasure, too.

Reading-in-bed-before-the-light-goes-out is sacred to reading (purely) for pleasure. I've just finsihed re-reading Dorothy L Sayers' Gaudy Night for the umpty-squillionth time because it's come up in various blog discussions lately, and have moved on to an historical crime novel about a detective in 19th-century Edinburgh -- crime, the Victorian period and Scotland being three of my favourite subjects separately or together.

I read for review anywhere -- don't have a special place.

littlefaeriegirl said...

i work in a library, and while i was in returns yesterday, checking all the books in, i was thinking about how i could probably write any of those these chick lit paperbacks that are passing through my hands. i could even base my story on annoying things my ex has done, and still does.

i'd just have to make us sexier

and then i got cross at myself for considering selling my soul

i dont know what book you quoted from, but it sounds like just the sort of book i would read

Ann O'Dyne said...

do you think of Dorothy Parker-type
Her review column 'Constant Reader' forced to cover A.A.Milne, flung at the readership:
"Tonstant weader frowed up"

I like
" I could put it down".

So, can any of us trust any printed review to be an accurate description of what we might get between the covers for our $50?

Amanda said...

I never read those capsules in teh paper before you started doing them (I sometimes skimmed the non fiction on the opposite page even though BE sort of irks me.) Now I read them all every week. I might even buy one of them one day.

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genevieve said...

You lucky Sydney peeps get to read KG's bewdiful shorts every week. While some of us would have to go to SLV to do so (or the local library, come to think of it. I must check that out.)

Ampersand Duck said...

I do that anyway, Genevieve. Pav's column is the only thing I want to read in the SMH. The rest of it makes me go GAH, and that's bad for the blood pressure.

lucy tartan said...

If you've got institutional access you can read em on Factiva!

Pavlov's Cat said...

I'm obviously going to have to lift my game.

Littlefaeriegirl: the book is Children of Freedom by Marc Levy. It's about 'foreigners' in France in WW2 and the Resistance.

Ms O'Dyne: 'I could put it down' made me LOL. I think the closest I've ever come to some such remark was 'Don't buy these books, it only encourages them.' As for your $50, I take that very seriously indeed, which is why I probably spend a bit too much of my small word allowance for each review on descriptions of plot and character. But as for 'accurate' -- I think reviews are rarely 'inaccurate', it's more that everyone likes different books and nobody can understand other people's taste. 'In literature, as in love, we are astonished by what is chosen by others.' -- Andre Maurois