Wednesday, May 23, 2012

What am I reading? Fatherland, The Finkler Question and One Day

I need to find my camera cord, upload my photos and blog about my sister's trip, but first I'll catch up on some of the books I've read recently, although I'll probably end up forgetting some.

I think first of the recent batch was Fatherland by Robert Harris, which I downloaded after finding it on a Guardian list of best "alternative historical fiction" books or something like that. First published in 1992, it depicts an alternative history in which the Nazis won the war and continue to rule a Greater Reich, with much of Western Europe under the thumb in a sort of Nazi version of the EU. I must say, I expected it to be very heavy-handed, filled with lots of exposition and extempore hand-wringing about how naughty the Nazis were, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book was primarily focused on telling a story, in which a German criminal detective (and therefore, member of the SS) discovers a body which turns out to be a high-ranking Nazi official, and thus gets sucked in to a world of danger and intrigue, in which he discovers chilling truths about the regime. So, it does get there in the end with the "Nazis are bad" bit, but I really appreciated that this felt like an organic part of an interesting story, rather than some sort of exercise in prognosticating on what might have been for its own sake.

I've been cat-sitting for Liz while she's been in Japan for the last few weeks, and once Fatherland was out of the way, I raided her bookshelves for something to occupy me while I was round at her place (I've managed to sit out in the sun in her garden two or three times in the last few weeks, when it hasn't been raining, and on other occasions I try to spend half an hour or so sitting with the cat so he doesn't get too lonely). First up was The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, winner of the 2010 Man Booker. When I first picked it up, I thought it was going to be another meditation on life from the perspective of middle-aged-to-elderly white men, in the vein of the recently-read The Sense of an Ending, and I prepared to be quite bored. (Not that I didn't enjoy The Sense of an Ending, but I found it hard to relate to the protagonist.) Again, I was pleasantly surprised. The book is essentially an extended meditation on Jewish identity, centred around three men with very different takes on the idea - a Gentile who, after possibly being mistaken for a Jew while being mugged, decides to adopt a Jewish identity; a philosopher who leads a movement of 'ashamed Jews' against Zionism, and an elderly Czech-Jewish widower who starts out defending Israel's actions before becoming increasingly disillusioned. It is certainly an interesting insight into the specificities of the Jewish experience in Britain today, but beyond this, it is wonderfully-written, and its themes of identity, love, friendship and loss go far beyond its specific context. Oh, and it mentions both the Motueka Gorge and Kamyanets-Podilsky, thus making me feel like a global sophisticate for knowing where those two places are...

The second book I read at Liz's was One Day by David Nicholls. It starts with a great concept - showing the lives of two characters by revisiting their stories on one day a year for twenty years, from the night they met to... I couldn't possibly say. On a technical level, Nicholls deals with the idea expertly, with each "yearly" excerpt managing to give you a sense of the characters' lives and developments without ever feeling like it's hammering a year's worth of exposition into the events of one day, before inevitably breaking off at a point that leaves you eager to read the next chapter and find out where the next year has taken the characters. In a way, it's the typical "boy meets girl, but the course of true love never did run smooth" romantic comedy plot writ large, but the writing is good enough and the characters interesting enough that it never seems to fall into cliché. The (lightly present) background of 20 years of recent history also adds an extra element of interest to the story. Apparently it's now been made into a fairly bad film, so you should read the book instead.

9 comments:

  1. Saw that film on the plane. Wasn't tooooo bad. M x

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  2. These all sound quite good! I'm hoping to jump into another read soon, if I can just finish this blasted War and Peace manuscript.

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  3. Read? Books? I really have to make more time to read something longer than magazine articles!

    Your description of David Nicholl's book reminds me somewhat of a BBC series, "Seven Up", that Peter (of Mike and Peter who went to NZ) told me about. The series revisits a group of people every 7 years to see what happening in their lives. It started when they were 7 and they're 56 now.

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  4. I loved that 'Seven Up' programme, but haven't seen it lately - they were about late thirties I think on the last one I saw.

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  5. Well, you don't sound very enthusiastic Mum.

    Eek, I gave up on War and Peace pretty soon, but I just read your blog post saying you have to finish what you start (maybe just skip the "war" bits, I've heard that's a popular strategy...)

    MK - it is certainly a shame when we get too busy to read, happens to the best of us though (I think I remember you saying you've studied literature?) I have heard of the "Up" series, but never watched it since it had already been going for so long by the time I would have first become aware of it.

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  6. Oh but I did love that programme. The trouble is, it only appears every seven years and I'm at the mercy of TVNZ and whether they screen it or not. Re War and Peace - I adored reading that, but skipped most of the 'War' bits I have to confess (and I am not usually a skipper or a 'giver-upper'). Mx

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  7. @GM, Can you watch BBC programs online in NZ? Just asking because it may be a way to watch the latest episode. "56 Up" is currently showing in England.

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  8. Thanks MK. I have a new 'tablet' so I will see if I can!

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  9. Now you've degenerated to "westie" novels written by your brother!

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