46. A Single Man

It’s a surprisingly productive reading month! I’m on novel six of the year but miles behind on my blog posts! A Single Man is one of those novels that I’ve been meaning to reread for quite a while. This is, in my opinion, an iconic novel. Set just after the Cuban missile crisis, George, our middle aged English protagonist is coming to grips with his life in Santa Monica after the death of his partner, Jim. The prose is remarkably certain about itself, with a level of control which mirrors George himself. It is a novel about buried rage, grief and the dispassionate mundane that George seeks meaning within.

A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood

This is a novel that spans an average day in the life of George and the reader is intimately wound around George’s long winding mental monologues and unpacking. The first pages are some of my favourite on the subject of waking up and becoming yourself for the day.

“Waking up begins with saying am and now. That which has awoken then lies for a while staring up at the ceiling and down into itself until it has recognised I, and therefrom deduced I am, I am now.” p.1

What makes this novel so notable for me is it’s writing style, it is well written with a distinct and absolute voice but it’s also an insatiable read. George is really an unremarkable man, he acknowledges his faults, his hate for the neighbourhood children, and some more embarrassing moments when he looses his temper. He admits that more often now he finds himself in a kind of autopilot detaching from the world while driving or in conversation loosing track of himself. In short, he is a very likeable, human character who is preoccupied with his denying his state as a widower.

It is an average day for George, he drives to the University he teaches at in LA. He has exchanges with students and then has dinner and gets drunk with an old friend. It is a very average day. In fact I am aware I am not really selling this day to you as summed up it is hardly intriguing. But George’s insights within the day are continual music over all of this other background noise and he is the real subject of this novel and an interesting one.

It is a novel that is taking stock of what is current in the life of George, it is unpacking reality into some sort of meaning all the while George himself seems half going through the motions and half flourishing against them. Isherwood is quite brave in how he handles this subject matter, it is not a loud foot stomping account but very much like the shutter lens of a camera. George almost seems submissive or a passive observer to his life and its surrounding faces. He almost refuses to engage or almost fails to physically be present, the musings that come to him are selective and sometimes profound.

When he does finally engage the pace of the novel suddenly picks up as a drunk George finally drops his armour of self control. All the while throughout this novel there is something there akin to a bittersweet and tender loneliness. It was an odd experience to reread this novel.

I feel some characters can walk around and take up residence in your mind after you have read the novel to completion. But George refuses somehow, he belongs in his groundhog day, he exists only as this person who wakes up and is ‘now’ and ceases to be anything but an experience when the novel is finished. There is a real sense of finality about George, as if he is removed so completely that he will only exist on paper.

I really love this novel. I highly recommend it and also the film adaptation.

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45. The Great Hunt 

We return to one of my biggest literary challenges – 15 novels, one series, hundreds of characters and oh my, am I besotted? Is this the high fantasy love I have been searching for in all the wrong places? I was really impressed by the Eye of the World because – in case you have forgotten my previous post or it has just simply become lost in the ether of my blog – it really satisfied a space that I had wanted Tolkien to fill. But I had been warned that Jordan takes a while to find his characters in the Great Hunt. I have to say I agree, the Great Hunt is a little slower. But it finally picks up it’s pace at the right point and the ending is brilliant!

The Great Hunt – Robert Jordan

You always want a good satisfying ending in a novel like this. You want to feel as if something is hopeful and complete while being open ended for the rest of the series. But before I get to that, there is a lot going on in this novel. Jordan takes it a step up from the Eye of the World, this is no longer a rehash of familiar ideas in fantasy, this is where things start to glimmer with originality and the backstory begins to become clearer.

Rand al’Thor is really coming to grips with his ability to channel magic and being a ta’veren. As a male who can channel, by all accounts he is destined to go mad and be dealt with in the appropriate fashion by the Red Ajah branch of the Aes Sedai. While coming to a decision over whether or not he should leave, the Amyrlin Seat (leader of the Aes Sadai) drops on the doorstep of Fal Dara for a visit. The Amyrlin Seat and Moraine (the Aes Sadai who found Rand all that time ago in the Eye of the World) alone suspect that Rand is the Dragon Reborn and pledge to protect him.

Then, when we are all just starting to wonder WHAT could POSSIBLY go wrong now, the Horn of Valere is stolen by a Darkfriend (who was locked up in the dungeon and somehow escaped killing all of the guards). The Horn of Valere is a legendary object that is said to summon long dead warrior heroes into battle to help in the final battle against the Dark One and it’s a pretty big deal by all accounts. As of course, a search party lead by a Horn obsessed man (tehe… phrasing) is sent out and Rand joins it with a few familiar faces. Meanwhile Egwene and Nyvaene are on their way to the Tar Valon to begin their training and education to become Aes Sadai and they meet some Aes Sadai along the way and start learning to channel.

The first part drags. It is slow, the prose is a labour and it is a weighty novel to first start wading through. But thankfully this doesn’t last. The pace regains some of that vibrance of the Eye of the World, but the Great Hunt shifts a lot more between characters. This novel also springboards some beautifully original ideas away from Tolkien’s influence and the originality of those ideas are compelling. We see a little more of the Aes Sadai’s way of life and training and discover there is more to Nyvaene than meets the eye during her Acceptance ceremony and later on when she is determined to rescue her friends.

This novel is much more about the struggle between fate and freewill than the Eye of the World. But I feel as if this struggle puts Rand at quite a disadvantage as a character. He is supposed to be the everyman, and I sympathised a lot with him in the first novel, however he has become almost mythical in the Great Hunt. We are told a lot about Rand but he is never really given much rope to be that in his actions, instead he seems to border on petulance. He seems almost to be doomed in this struggle of fate and freewill without much real protest, beyond stamping his feet, and I find myself not caring that much.

Jordan has the great luck of being able to throw all of his characters in the same city by coincidence for the ending because the Wheel Weaves as it Wants and all that meet the ta’veren are touched by the Pattern. It was a brilliant ending! It felt so much more satisfying than the Eye of the World because it didn’t focus on just one character and Nyvaene. Nyvaene is my hero! I am on team Nyvaene right now! If you want to find out why, you will just have to read it.

This novel is a little more diverse than its predecessor. More cultures are revealed, more politics, more prophecies, and certainly more clues as to where this big old story is going to go. I would say this one is on par with the first, it has it’s faults but different faults than the first novel. Still, I’m stuck on this adventure now and I am well and truly invested.

44. American Gods 

There aren’t many novels that live on my desk looking at me and reminding me that I want to reread them, but American Gods is one of them. I first read a borrowed copy which I devoured and now every time I reread it, it still sucks me in like magnetism. Every time I read it I find more I love, I find more details to enjoy, I find something else to enthuse about. It is a winding read, the world of American Gods is ours, but it’s dynamic and has uncertain rules.

Gods walk with us, figuring out how to survive on little or no belief, and American Gods is populated with characters that are remarkably distinct. The old Gods are cherry picked from all cultures, they come from Cornish, Norse, Hindu, Egyptian, American Indian and so on. They’re big smoking Russians threatening to knock a man down with a hammer, or cats that sneak into dreams in their human forms to get intimate with the dreamer. Whenever I pick up this novel I feel how far away the ending is, I feel how unclear and distant a destination it is. And I love that.

But my biggest problem whenever I try to describe this novel to someone is always where to start.

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

There is a lot to say about this novel and there never seems to be enough time to do it justice.

A war is coming. A war between the old Gods and the new Gods. The new Gods of Television, Media, Greed, Shopping Complexes, and the Internet, are trying their best to delete the old Gods. The old Gods try their best to survive across America on what little belief is left for them. Most of them have come to America on whispers of belief from immigrants long since dead, but while there is pockets of belief the God will survive somehow.

We start the book with a guy called Shadow, who is due to be released from prison. He is a big, quiet, and is fond of learning coin tricks and keeping his head down. Two days before his release date he is let out of prison early because his wife Laura has died in a road accident. Grief stricken Shadow then meets an odd old man on the plane home. The man calls himself Wednesday and he offers Shadow a job as his personal bodyguard.

It is Wednesday who throws Shadow headlong into a world of weirdness, where there are few rules and Gods are everywhere. My favourite parts of this novel are there are no boundaries. Televisions will talk to you if they choose to. There is a God who accepts worship by swallowing her human prey through her vagina. There is a Spider God who claims to have once stolen tiger testicles for his own. There are crazy eagle men in the sky. The thunderbirds are real birds. Dreams can heard by everyone listening instead of being private things. There is a dead woman running around trying to protect her husband from the trouble he gets himself into. Belief gathers at roadside attractions and old men who are not as they appear.

This is a through and through fantasy that will grab you by the eyes and refuse to let you look away. It is a novel that gathers up many strands and whips them into shape with relative ease and it is a rapid enjoyable read. Whenever I finish this novel I really feel its absence, I feel the book hangover creep in and mourn the loss of a friend. I like how this novel picks characters from the wealth of human belief in Gods. I like how it winds from place to place and twists in ways you may not expect. I love how difficult it is to put down even if the story is so familiar to me. It is one of those genuinely enjoyable novels to visit, it welcomes you in to get comfortable, it entertains and thrills and has a little bit of everything.

This is one of those 550 pages novels that doesn’t feel like it is 550 pages and if you’re anything like me, you’ll fall in love with it and wish it was longer and that there was more. There are many reasons why American Gods sits on my desk looking at me and reminding me to reread it, the biggest is it is one of my all time favourite books. I recommend it to anyone.

43. Nod

A friend handed me this novel a few weeks ago when I was off on an adventure to Bristol, she is one of those lovely people that believe books are for sharing. Nod was a read she really sold to me, because of its genre and content. She said it was a striking novel and a little unusual and reminiscent of Lord of the Flies and I agree. Nod was the last novel I read cover to cover in 2016 and it rounded the year off quite beautifully. I have been thinking lately that I will do a post shortly on my favourite reads of 2016, just for the fun of reliving them.

Nod is a tale about most of our species going to bed one night and suffering insomnia. Nobody sleeps, bar a few thousand. I want to shelve it away into dystopia but it doesn’t quite fit there as this novel feels more apocalyptic, it’s a bit more dismal. It’s a little more chaotic and without reason.

Nod – Adrian Barnes

I’ve read other reviews of this novel that criticise Nod for how much it lacks any explanation, and how little the plot seems to achieve. However I feel as if these critics may be asking something from this novel that it never intended to set out and deliver. Nod is populated mostly by people who will die within four weeks from sleep deprivation and people who are going insane. It’s populated by mad prophets and crazy acolytes searching for answers. So in a way it’s prudent that there is no big reveal and satisfying answer to tie up this novel in a way that would avoid this criticism.

“For hours I was as fragile as the shell of a battery egg. If I’d touched anything, I’d have shattered and pale yellow yolk would have slithered out of me and puddled on the floor.” p. 138

Insomnia is frustrating. We’re irritable and irrational, we can’t concentrate and find making decisions difficult. In Nod, Paul finds himself a lone sleeper in a world of suffering people. Barnes takes us through the weeks that are a close medical understanding of how merciless sleep deprivation is. There are horrifying moments, the ugliest side of humanity reveals it’s face in cult like groups following the word of a fool, and combatants pretending to be ‘sleepers’ by donning make up and going through the motions of lying still under blankets.

The narrator Paul is an etymologist, working on a book about words that have been lost called ‘Nod’. He struggles to like people even before the world has ended, but he still achieves some beautiful insights into humanity and relationships. He watches his longterm girlfriend Tanya, crumble before him as sleep deprivation turns her into a shadow of who he knew her to be, and despite the odds stacked against him, attempts to keep a sense of normal or try for safety. In other words, Paul is doing his best with very limited means.

I can understand entirely why this novel wouldn’t be for everyone. But honestly I really enjoyed it, it was beautifully written, and I liked Paul. I thought it an engaging read and even if it was disturbing and disorientating at times and it ended where I really didn’t anticipate I couldn’t leave it alone. I imagine I’d read it again.