Monday, August 2, 2010

July Reading in Review

Now that A Man Melting is out there, and the readership of this blog is slowly expanding, I feel it is worth restating the purpose of these monthly reading updates. These are not meant to be mini-reviews. Rather, I'm just trying to record the books I've read over the year and my responses to them. If nothing more, it should provide an aide memoire when I come to summarise the best books I've read this year, much as I did back in 2008. It may also prove interesting to look back and align what I was reading at a certain point in time with what I was writing. Sometimes the writing drives the reading (or re-reading as in the case of the first two books mentioned below). Other times the reading will influence the writing in a variety of ways. It's all part of the aim of this blog to leave the window on the creative process ever so slightly ajar.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville 

Moby-DickThis is one of my two favourite books I read at university (the other being The Great Gatsby). Both remain in my top ten, if not five, books of all time list (pretending that I ever bothered to compile one). The last time I re-read Moby Dick was 2005. I was revising my first attempt at a novel, which on one level attempted to conflate the myth of Maui pulling up the North Island with Ahab's mad pursuit of the white whale. The novel also borrowed the structure of Moby Dick: it began with Etymology and Extracts sections, followed by episodic (and titled) chapters told in the first person. I bit off more than I could chew back then, and my reason for re-reading this year was far more modest: a short story. My big takeaway this time: I'm sure I'll return to it again within the next five years, but hopefully I don't feel the need to ravage it for material and can just enjoy the book on its own merits.

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (audiobook)

The Three MusketeersI was also writing about Dumas in July, so I started listening to The Three Musketeers audiobook I have on my iPod. All up, it would take over 24 hours solid listening to get through, and I admit I scrolled forward on a couple of tracks (budding writers: it's never a good thing when listeners can skip forward 3 minutes and the conversation is still going, and still be confident of its outcome). I first read the book when I was in primary school -- I struggle to recall the names of some of my teachers, so I most of the text was fresh to me. I enjoyed the beginning: how D'Artagnan offends Athos, Porthos and Aramis and sets up duels with each, then manages to befriend them. But as soon as the intrigue (MacGuffin) at the centre of the novel (the Cardinal trying to entrap the Queen and the Duke of Buckingham) emerged, it all became a bit tedious. Very similar to my reaction reading The Count of Monte Cristo last year.

A Man and His Wife by Frank Sargeson (short stories, NZ)

I feel a bit dopey admitting this, but I picked up Sargeson's 1940 collection from the library this month after Siobhan Harvey mention it in her review of my collection. Now, I had read some Sargeson before, including his ‘greatest hits’ (The Stories of Frank Sargeson), so not all the stories in A Man and His Wife were new to me. But I hadn't read it as a collection. I thought I'd better, especially after my argument for reading Owen Marshall's collections over his greatest hits last year. Sargeson is great at first person narratives (the few where he employs the third person in this collection struck me as the weakest). The stories I enjoyed the most tended to be longer ones, like ‘An Affair of the Heart’, where we got more than the skilled display of a master ventriloquist and actually covered some narrative ground.

Just This by Brian Turner (poetry, NZ)

Just ThisNominated for the Poetry award at this year's NZ Post Book Awards (The Posties), I'm just not sure about this collection. There's a lot of repetition, particularly of places in Central Otago. Was it the strength of the collection or did it just grate: I continually flip-flopped. Where the individual poems strong? Well, there were some great lines (“as if they’re / as special as sun-dried tomatoes / in a town without a deli”). But there's a preachy streak running through many of these poems and I didn't think the sentiments or the style were unique enough to pull it off. I'm sure I'd respond differently to a reading in the Maniototo.

Voodoo Shop by Ruth Padel (poetry)

Padel was in the news in 2009 with her 9 day stint as Professor of Poetry at Oxford; this is the first collection of hers that I have read (chosen from the four or so on the library shelves). I've stated before my preference for shorter poems, but I think Padel has converted me as a reader to the two and a half pager. ‘Rattlesnakes and Rubies’ and ‘Voodoo Shop’ were my highlights.

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