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Update: Authors I Would Like To Read This Year – The Bad

During 2021, I decided not to set myself any specific reading challenges, preferring instead to pick up books on a whim. Regardless, I did make a tentative list of authors whose work I had not read before, but wanted to try. You can see the full list here. Of course, I haven’t met all of the challenges; I became a little sceptical as to whether I really wanted to read the only Vikram Seth available to me in my local library, A Suitable Boy, which comes in at well over one thousand pages, and I went off reading Naipaul entirely after reading a slew of sexist comments which he had made over the years.

As you can see, I got off to rather an inauspicious start. The books below – all of which I awarded just two stars to, and could not wait to finish – were the first three which I began with. I must admit that I didn’t actually get much further than this with my challenge. The moral of the story is that I just don’t do that well with structured yearly reads; I am far better with making a weekly TBR to stick to. This is a practice I began during March, and which I have enjoyed putting together every single week. I will be continuing with this, and this alone, during 2022; at least it’s something I have proven I can stick to!

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke **

Attica Locke was the first of these which I picked up, beginning with Bluebird, Bluebird, the first book in her ‘Highway 59’ series. On the face of it, her books really intrigue me; she writes thrillers based in Texas which, alongside quite gruesome murders or crimes, deal with wider issues within the community – inequality, poverty, racism, and injustice. I have heard a great deal about her books – the majority of it incredibly positive – and fancied sinking my teeth into a thriller set somewhere rather different to the UK- and US-based thrillers which I generally gravitate toward.

Whilst I cannot fault the pace or plotting of Bluebird, Bluebird, there was not a great deal about it which personally appealed to me. The prose style is very matter-of-fact, with relatively few descriptions; things within the novel are told, not shown. It was rather too hardboiled in style for my taste. Whilst one does get a good feel for the landscape, the characters are focused upon far more. Sadly, these characters – whom I felt were introduced in far too quick a succession – feel two-dimensional. They are not quite realistic, and have not been fleshed out enough to be believable. In consequence, some of their motives seemed strange and unlikely.

There are rather a few tropes within the novel which I was expecting, and parts of it felt rather predictable. I am pleased that I started my project with such a lauded novel, but I can safely say that I will not be continuing with this series – even the cliffhanger ending did not encourage me to read further – and probably will not pick up anything by Locke again, either.

The Gathering by Anne Enright **

I read Enright’s short story collection, Yesterday’s Weather, at the end of 2020, and must admit that I found it rather underwhelming. I wondered if her style would suit the longer form better, and decided to download the audiobook of The Gathering from my library’s app. I love listening to books with Irish narrators, and whilst the delivery of this one was undoubtedly good – at first, at least – I had a few issues with the text itself.

The story within this novel is a bleak one, but I loved the central idea of the ‘gathering’ of the title, when a family of siblings meet one another en masse, after their brother drowns in the sea off the coast of Brighton. Unfortunately, this gathering took up barely any space in the novel, and seemed rather shoehorned in toward the end. The rest of the book goes off on random tangents about the characters’ difficulties, much of which is centered around abuse. Everything, for this narrator, harks back to sex, and I did not feel that this obsession actually added a great deal to the whole.

As I began to listen to The Gathering, I found it quite engaging. However, after a few chapters had passed, the way in which Enright had crafted the novel began to frustrate me. She can certainly write, but this was rather too rambling for me. There are far too many characters to keep track of in a relatively short book, particularly at the outset. The listening experience quickly became rather chaotic, with rushed sentences, and nothing feeling quite clear enough. Had I not picked up her short stories beforehand, I would probably try and read something else of Enright’s in physical form. However, following The Gathering, I just do not feel that she is an author whose work I could wholeheartedly enjoy.

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch **

Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children really appealed to me, drawn as I am to books set within the landscape of Eastern Europe. The novel is shaped around a ‘heart-stopping image’ taken by a photographer, of a young girl running from the explosion which engulfs her home, and kills her family. This photograph has won prizes and a great deal of acclaim, and it soon becomes a ‘subject of obsession’ for the photographer’s best friend.

At first, I must admit that I was enjoying this book. The prose is beautifully rich in the first couple of chapters, and feels almost fairytale-like; it makes much use of colour and space, and focuses on both the known and the unknown. Yuknavitch has an interesting approach to writing, using lots of single, snappy sentences alongside very long and descriptive ones. She flits between perspectives and settings throughout, something which I usually enjoy in fiction. However, the fact that none of the characters whatsoever were named until very late on, and were described only by their professions – ‘The Poet, ‘The Playwright’ – did become a little confusing, as they were not explicitly different from one another on the whole. Sometimes it felt as though their professions were the only things which set them apart, but as these professions were almost entirely creative, I feel as though any distinction was lost.

There are some memorable scenes and images here, but overall, The Backs of Small Children has left me cold. I did like the strange, almost otherworldly feel of the book at first, but this felt almost overwhelming as it went on. The primal, animalistic edge, with its often unnecessary obsession with sex, suffused everything, and I regularly found the novel uncomfortable to read. It did not hold my interest all of the way through, either. Whilst the beginning of The Backs of Small Children felt promising, I found it too muddled a book to really enjoy. I am now conflicted as to whether I would read anything else by Yuknavitch; if it all follows a similar pattern to this novel, then I am happy to move on to other authors.

I am afraid that as I did not get much further than this with my challenge, there will be no further updates.

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‘Two Underdogs and a Cat’ by Slavenka Drakulic ****

‘Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic here presents an unorthodox, imaginative take on the transition from Communism to capitalism in the former Soviet Union. Three characters – a dog, an underdog, and a cat – offer the reader narratives that reflect on life under Communism and what has followed in its wake. The first, “An Interview with the Oldest Dog in Bucharest,” is about a dog named Charlie, whose mother, Mimi, together with thousands of other pets, was thrown out into the street during the Ceausescu regime. In this interview, Charlie describes how not only people but animals, too, became victims during the destruction of downtown neighborhoods in Bucharest in order to build a pyramid-like ‘Palace of the People’. In “A Guided Tour of the Museum of Communism,” a sixty-year-old souvenir vendor-cum-cleaning woman in Prague reflects upon the meaning of such a museum and concludes wryly that she herself is possibly the museum’s best exhibit. Finally, “A Cat-keeper in Warsaw” describes an encounter with a person “of feline origin” who claims to be in possession of the cat-keeper called ‘General’ who declared martial law in Poland on December 13, 1981. The three stories are unified by powerful, but troubling questions: Are democracy and capitalism really a change for the better? Is the idea of social justice lost forever? Is there such a thing as collective responsibility? And how do we remember and understand our past?’

9781906497286I have wanted to read Slavenka Drakulic’s work for ages, and borrowed Two Underdogs and a Cat: Three Reflections on Communism, the only book of hers which my library had in stock. The volume is comprised of three short stories entitled ‘A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism’, ‘An Interview with the Oldest Dog in Bucharest’, and ‘The Cat-Keeper in Warsaw’, told from the perspective of a mouse, a dog, and a cat respectively.

Drakulic’s work is clever, deep, and well informed, with a touch of whimsy. Each story is engaging, and the way in which they are told and the content which they express mould to become something quite profound. In the first story, for instance, Drakulic writes the following: ‘Maybe the absence of individual stories is the best illustration of the fact that individualism was the biggest sin one could commit.’

Informative, powerful, and rather different to many of the reflections on Communist rule which I have read to date, Two Underdogs and a Cat is one of the most memorable books I have come across in quite a while. Drakulic effectively demonstrates how far-reaching Communism was, and the effects which still remain today for ordinary people. As she writes in ‘An Interview with the Oldest Dog in Bucharest’, in a clear play on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, ‘In the transition from Communism to capitalism, all people are unequal but some are more unequal than others’.

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