Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy – coming up – will be the subject of the 100th book review I’ve written in the past 6 years.
I have my mother, Marina le Roux, to thank for a lifetime’s habit of critical reading. She may be 79 but she is still actively reviewing and assessing literature. The differences are that 1) her reviews are published in real media; 2) she writes in Afrikaans and 3) she reviews Afrikaans poetry in the poetry (book)club she started in 1998 in Stellenbosch, South Africa. The club still thrives today, with interesting and serious Afrikaans poets under discussion.
As she would say, reviewing books is a thankless task – and why do we persist in doing it? I guess it is because it is an acquired habit and I feel critical readers make a better book market.
Confessions of a book Feinschmecker
And over the years, like a foodie, I’ve become something of a Feinschmecker when it comes to literature. An author needs to have a really original voice, something truly interesting to say, before I will praise their work. I take a writer’s skill at using the tools of their trade for granted. But a good read, for me, depends on what the work makes me think – whether it will transport, inspire and intrigue me. Whether it will make me remember it, like a superb painting. Whether the author has taken gone the extra mile to deepen the work.
The re-reading test
Those books are the ones that I would keep and re-read, rather than giving them away or leaving them behind on planes and trains. The operative word here is “re-read”. Few novels stand up to repeated re-reading. The more you read them the more boring they get, and the more the style irritates. Books that initially have a strong emotional impact – 10-hankie weepies – will not have the same effect a second time, and then the author’s technique comes to the fore. The good ones stand the test of time.
Lately, the authors that have been “keepers” have been (in random order):
- Stuart McLean and his canny, humorous Vinyl Cafe short stories. What a delightful Canadian discovery. Clever man.
- Alice Munro and her darker, more subtle short stories, Dear Life in particular. Now there’s a master of the art. And she makes the Canadian landscape come alive.
- Pablo Neruda’s touching and tender love poems. Makes you remember that you love someone. Makes you understand why.
- China Miéville’s extremely mind-blowing Sci-Fi tours-de-force, particularly Embassytown.
- Peter Høeg, who tackles the most complicated subjects imaginable, and often writes from the viewpoint of disturbed children. But nevertheless, fascinatingly. My favourite: Borderliners. Also: The History of Danish Dreams and Smilla’s Sense of Snow. The man knows how to write about snow.
- Per Olov Enquist, who can create a full world from a tiny historical episode, for instance: The Visit of the Royal Physician and The Book About Blanche and Marie.
- Anthony Bourdain – he writes about food and makes it sound like sex and madness and poetry all rolled into one. Medium Raw is a good example.
- William Gibson – anything by Gibson foretells the future. Read and wake up those tired brain cells.
- Edmund de Waal – a fresh new voice. How can a debut memoir be so amazingly finely crafted? Must have something to do with his ceramic art. Maybe the aesthetic had rubbed off.
- Martin Amis. He is the Grand Old Man of English Lit. but boy, can he still pack a punch. Lionel ASBO is just so delectably NASTY!
- Paul Auster. The Master of Uncanniness. I’ve never reviewed his books (mainly because I’ve never quite understood them) but Mr. Vertigo and The Book of Illusions had large doses of riveting weirdness in them. Extremely enjoyable.
- Annie E. Proulx. Characters in lonely landscapes and lonely landscapes as characters. Always moving, always toned down to the bare essence. Not one superfluous word. I loved Accordion Crimes.
- Ian Fleming. I re-read all the James Bonds at least once every two years. He wrote short, tight and spare, his plots were fairly tight (if absurd) and his characters were crude, nasty but likeable. Like a strong cup of coffee, quick, tasty and probably not that good for you if it’s all you’re having. Lowbrow doesn’t get much better than Fleming at his best.
- Dylan Thomas, dearly beloved dead Welsh poet. Such rivers of exquisite words, such worlds masterfully evocated. What’s not to love?
- Hergé (Georges Remi). All the Tintins. I re-read them all the time and yes, I’ve had them since I was 6 and now I’m past 50. So? The man was a genius. Roll on 2052 when Tintin will go out of copyright and anyone will be able to create and publish new Tintin books. Hopefully still with Hergé’s in-depth research and ligne claire style. I just want more of the good stuff.
- André P. Brink. After all these years, I still read him – in Afrikaans and English. Just the other day I took up Devil’s Valley again and enjoyed having my hair stand on end and my stomach churn.