Thursday Reading Notes

It has to be notes at the end of this week rather than a review because I’m reading Eleanor Catton’s magnificent epic, The Luminaries, and I’m afraid at this point that it might just go on forever. I am enjoying it and admiring it hugely. The writing is outrageously good. But heavens, it’s long. It’s also intricately plotted and where I am (250 pages in) there are still new characters being introduced, so I don’t like to put it down and pick anything else up for a mental palate cleanse. I’m keeping all the information in my head at the moment, but a break might set free details that will turn out to be essential to understanding the outcome later on. I worry about these things.

I’m really not good with very long books and it seems to me that, generally, books are getting longer. The average length for a novel seems to be about 350-400 pages, often with 50 pages that could have usefully been edited out. I’m not sure why longer books should be so fashionable, unless they look like better value for money. But I also wonder whether the length is about increasing complexity, and the urge, so prevalent in a tortured bookworld, to grip a reader and not allow them to go.

Tuesday's goneLast week I read the second Nicci French book featuring Dr Frieda Klein, their psychotherapist-detective. It was by sheer chance that I read the first book first – another thing I’m bad at is reading in the right order, prefering to cherry pick the best books from a prolific author when given the chance. But in this case, order is essential, because the opening chapters of the second novel give away pretty much eveything that happened at the end of the first, and continue to develop the plot lines that were started. I get the feeling that if you’ve read one, you’ve got to read ‘em all, and the second book has 450 pages, because now there’s not just a murder enquiry to be developed, there’s so much else going on in Frieda Klein’s life as well.

What I really appreciate about the books is their properly disturbing atmosphere. Nicci French have done a great job of tapping into the feeling of shifting sands that comes with mental instability, how dislocating and disorienting altered mental states can be. Tuesday’s Gone begins with the discovery of a corpse, but one that’s being given tea and buns by a woman with a severe mental abnormality. It was one of the creepiest openings to a work of crime fiction that I’d read in a long while. The character of Frieda Klein is also very well drawn, showing the way that therapists both seem calmer and more in control in emotional situations than most, but also how deeply wounded they may be in other ways. The third in the series Waiting for Wednesday, is just out and yes, I have a copy. I’m hooked in now.

I’m also writing about Dodie Smith, which involves reading all four volumes of her memoirs. Clearly this was an example of Dodie getting going and not being able to stop herself – she is having such a ball describing her life, but I found to my surprise that I wasn’t having so much of a ball keeping her company. In principle I should love these books; Dodie Smith is a very funny, self-deprecating writer who had a half-life on the stage before becoming an author (and writing 101 Dalmations and I Capture the Castle if you can’t place her). After reading up on a couple of male authors who could be rather full of self-pity, I thought I’d appreciate her sparky, spirited good humour. And I do. But her ability to brush problems and difficulties aside and to come out with a stream of amusing anecdotes is perversely turning her into an uninteresting person. The memoirs are funny, yes, and somehow relentlessly shallow. At the moment, we are in the thick of World War One, but after three years of warfare, world events have scarcely warranted a mention. So caught up with her failing and foolish love affairs is Dodie, that when she watches a zeppelin raid over London from the blacked-out theatre she’s appearing in, all she sees is a delightfully pretty phenomenon in the night sky and she’s rather proud not to feel in the least bit scared. It’s quite a mindset that can trivialise WW1. But the experience of the memoirs is telling me something very interesting: we hate the dark emotions, the painful events, the fear and the sorrow. But these are the things that give us depth and make us interesting people. 800 pages of frivolity is turning out to be the hardest going of all.

40 thoughts on “Thursday Reading Notes

  1. I finished The Luminaries last week, going through a period of I-love-this-book! to When-will-it-end? to I-think-it-was-worth-it. So much. Here’s the thing, just like when reading The Time Traveler’s Wife, don’t feel compelled to keep track of every single detail. I found that too overwhelming in her complex plot. Plus, the characters aren’t reliable. Better stop now, but let’s talk when you’re done. You know, in May. 😉

    • Lol! You do amuse me. I’m on page 575, so I’m making headway. That’s wise advice not to worry about the details – I do tend to like to hold everything in my head, and have been known to reread if I’m not sure I’ve got everything that happens. Not this time! I’m still enjoying it though – her panache and ambition are amazing.

  2. Absolutely spot-on about the increasing length of books. They often need an application of the good old fashioned blue pencil, although I see that you’ve recently bought Alice McDermott’s Someone, a fine example of the small but perfectly formed!

    • Ha! I’m so glad it’s not just me who thinks that. I am really looking forward Alice McDermott because I love her writing very much – and even better, it was a review copy! I intend to get to it very shortly. 🙂

  3. “But her ability to brush problems and difficulties aside and to come out with a stream of amusing anecdotes is perversely turning her into an uninteresting person. The memoirs are funny, yes, and somehow relentlessly shallow… It’s quite a mindset that can trivialise WW1.”

    Reminds me of PG Wodehouse. As Rosey Grier once said, “It’s okay to cry.”

    • Ooh good call with Wodehouse. Yes, Dodie Smith is very much of that ilk. The sort of book that I do appreciate if I’m ill or feeling very anxious. But beyond that state, I do like a bit of depth, and I am in complete agreement with you and Rosey Grier.

  4. Could the extra fifty pages be lazy editors?

    Or perhaps it’s a new trend in books that follows the new trend in television to ignore that people can remember where they left off, to insist on filling air time with 15 minutes of recaps.

    I suspect TV figured out that they could slash labor costs by shortening scripts and shows, and using the recap to do it. I think that they think people either won’t notice they’re getting shortchanged in their shows, or won’t mind too much because recaps are like reruns that viewers would watch anyway–for the fix.

    Anyone who’s ever loved a TV show knows that feeling you get when your favorite show is off for the season or ended. You’d intone withdrawal, but then suddenly there’s a rerun. It might be just a teaser advertising the new season opener. Whatever the presentation, there is a physical satisfaction from watching what you love even if it is a repeat.

    This condition is an addiction that acts and feels like any other habit: the craving, the jonesing, the numbness of zoning out, the escape, whatever; the 15 minutes of replayed episodes trigger the same physiological response–pleasure.

    Publishers probably figured out the same scheme. Make the next book’s first 50 pages just a rehash, fill space, increase the final size of the book, charge for more it, get more money for shipping, charge more in the store, apathy people’s memory muscles further. Increase the recap even further over time, keep people laser focused on that crack.

    The recap is the only beef I had with Harry Potter. But I’ll give her credit for mixing it in with a forward moving narrative.

    You know what strikes me funny about Dodie? While the modernists were deconstructing the war, she experienced it as a soundtrack to her real battles. And there’s a cool idea that not being scared of bombs and death is like a test of her courage. All’s fair in love and war, right?

    You can’t trivialize war anymore than it trivializes itself.

    • Oh the recaps in television programs! I just hate that – so lazy and unnecessary, and when you finally reach whatever ‘revelation’ they set up, it is always an anti-climax. I don’t know who dreamt them up, but they should not be allowed into artist’s heaven.

      Even Harry Potter I found too padded in books 5, 6 and 7. It was probably having to read them aloud to my son – not only was padding very evident, it was easy to resent! I do think, though, that the third Harry Potter book is a work of genius and deserves to be remembered and revered for a long, long time.

      It’s nice of you to defend Dodie, but she’s a bit of a lost cause. Since then she’s been throwing herself at married men (reasoning that if they’ve already been unfaithful, it will hardly matter to their wives), and complaining about food shortages in Northern France at the end of the war. Her ability not to notice the plight of others is really quite something!

  5. I daren’t start ‘The Luminaries’ just at the moment because I have so much that needs to be read for a specific date that I can’t give it the attention it deserves. I suspect it might be the Summer before I get round to it. Do you want to know that as far as Nicci French is concerned the Thursday book is due out in a couple of months? 🙂

    • Heh, as my former PhD student used to take delight in saying: No need to lead me into temptation, I can get there all by myself! Thursday here we come…. I can perfectly understand your holding off The Luminaries. It is better read with focus and without too many other books jostling for time. My money’s on you liking it, though, so I will wait with interest to hear what you think when summer comes!

  6. ‘But the experience of the [Dodie Smith] memoirs is telling me something very interesting: we hate the dark emotions, the painful events, the fear and the sorrow. But these are the things that give us depth and make us interesting people. 800 pages of frivolity is turning out to be the hardest going of all.’

    I agree more than I really know how to say.

  7. I am generally of the camp that less is more but I think that novels are big these days because of what you touched on in this post–people feel like they are getting their money’s worth.

    I read the first 50 pages of The Luminaries when it came out last year and I am very excited to read the rest, but I put off finishing it up because I’m waiting for the paperback edition in the US. I really dislike hardcovers, especially when they are massive.

    • I cannot deny this is one heavy book. I’m giving myself a little wrist workout every time I read it! But it is excellent in all sorts of ways and at almost 600 pages in, I have to say I’m still enjoying it. I look forward very much indeed to reading your review! I’m also less is more, generally, but I’ll make an exception for this one.

  8. I had to read The Luminaries in one big gulp because I was on a deadline. It was still very long, but because I absolutely had to finish it by a fixed date, I couldn’t set it aside and read something else, I had to keep plowing through. Although it did feel like a slog at times, I ended up enjoying it a lot — more, I think, than I would have done if I’d been picking it up and putting it down quite often.

    >>>It’s quite a mindset that can trivialise WW1.

    Okay, so I know that you did not write this passage thinking “I wonder if there’s a better world-war-trivializing memoir out there that I can read,” but I cannot resist: Have you read anything by Joan Wyndham at all? She published several volumes of her diaries from World War II, the first volume uninspiringly titled Love Lessons. She responds to her war (it sounds like) in much the same way Dodie Smith did to WWI, but I find her books tremendously winning and funny. I would be very very curious to know what you thought of her.

    • Although I’m not on a deadline, I am reading it pretty much exclusively. I feel sure I’m enjoying it more because I haven’t forgotten the characters, even if a few details slip my mind. I do tend to cast longing looks at other books, though, as I usually read three or four books at once and I’m feeling oddly monogamous! But like you, I don’t think it’s a book to dip into between others.

      I have never heard of Joan Wyndham – is she a relative of John Wyndham at all? Hmm, I can see I shall have to track her down – you have defnitely piqued my curiosity! 🙂

  9. I’m glad you’re enjoying the Luminaries. I did too, but have read a number of rather snide reviews since I finished it. I actually listened to it as an audiobook so keeping track was possibly even less easy (no flicking back over the pages) — but as people above have been saying, in the end I don’t think it’s really an issue. I like Nicci French too.

    • It seems to be a law of book world – the more glowing reviews you get, the more mean one start reviews you provoke. Sigh. Yes, I don’t know quite how you managed it on audio book, though that being said, I could imagine it was wonderful to listen to – so vivid and the dialogue is fabulous. And hurray for liking Nicci French. I wasn’t so sure about their other thrillers, but this series is great.

  10. Looking forward to your thoughts on the Catton book. I am waiting for it to come out in paperback here for fear the heft of the hardcover will aggravate my tendonitis! Interesting observation about the Dodie Smith memoir. Everything bright needs a bit of shade and everything dark needs a little light otherwise it tends to be just too much, I think.

    • Yes this is definitely not the book for a tendonitis sufferer! You could always get it on kindle – that would help. And I agree – a balance of emotions is always best in reading.

  11. I’m glad you’re enjoying The Luminaries but nothing will make me read it. It’s too long. I’d rather fianlly read Cohen’s Belle du Seigneur.
    I’m also glad you liked Nicci French. I wan’t aware you’ve read the first. I guess you didn’t mention it. I’ve got the third here as well. I can’t remember now, but the beginning of volume 2 wasn’t really a recap. It was full of spoilers though.

    • Do you know, Belle du Seigneur has been on my must-read-one-day list for ages and ages. I love the look of my copy – lovely cover – and it’s one of those books with a slightly iconic status. One of these days I will get around to it! So far, my resolution to read more French this year hasn’t amounted to anything – must sort that out.

  12. I don’t have a lot of patience with long books or movies! I do want to read The Luminaries but I also have the Goldfinch on my stack and that’s a big one too. I’ve enjoyed some of Nicci French’s books but it’s been a while!

    • I rather cheekily gave Mr Litlove The Goldfinch for Christmas, as I thought I could gauge how much I wanted to read it by his reaction (and so far he hasn’t picked it up, despite my nagging!). I’m just the same – no patience for long movies, either! But Nicci French is a lovely quick read, and some times I am in just the mood for that. 🙂

  13. I will be interested to read your take on The Luminaries. I was going to order it from B&N until I found out how long it was. Now, big books don’t scare me…my favorite book is Les Mis…and I loved 11/22/63, but unless the big book is truly gripping my attention tends to wander off to the next shiny object of my bookish affection.

    • I would be very interested to know what you make of this, Grad. I’d guess that you’d enjoy it. It has a lot going on – no dull bits, and that certainly helps to keep the pages turning. I’m nearly up to p600 now and still enjoying it very much. Harriet listened to it on audio book and loved it, so that might be an option?

  14. It sounds as though you are at that stage in the Luminaries, before the end of part 1, where it’s impossible to imagine the story gaining momentum. Believe me, it does, and positively races towards the end. 🙂 I’m still trying to collect my thoughts about it – structurally, thematically it’s all so very clever. It is a great big machine though, and all those cogs and wheels take some grinding. Sometimes I felt it was all a bit bloodless. Still entirely worth it in the end, and can’t wait to hear your thoughts.

    • Oh you witchy woman! You are absolutely spot on – that’s pretty much exactly where I was when I wrote the post. I’m now coming up to page 600 and still enjoying it, and the increased momentum, very much. The writing is just amazing. Your comment about it being a big machine is brilliant and extremely insightful; yes, that is exactly what is sort of amazing about it and sort of restrictive too. I am just as intrigued to read your review! I can see some thought-assembling time is going to be necessary.

  15. As a slow reader, I simply don’t have time for long reads. So, it’s to your blog that I come to read your thoughts on them. I’d a hold on this book, The Luminaries, from the public library, but after a wait and i finally got it, I decided to let it go and returned without reading, because I knew I just didn’t have the appetite and stamina to devour it. But, I await your review. 😉

    • Well I really do understand. I’m not a fan of them, and it’s unusual for me to read as many as I seem to have done over the past few months! I’m sort of interested to see my review too – at the moment I don’t know what I will say! 🙂

  16. Your notes are more informative than a lot of reviews 🙂 I’ve read a few posts about The Luminaries recently, and other readers seem to be having a similar experience. It is a lot to hold onto. And although long books are becoming fashionable, things like character lists seem to be unfashionable. I remember when I was reading War & Peace, my edition had a quick guide at the front to remind me who was who, and I found it very helpful.

    • I love a good character list. Funny you should mention it, but the Luminaries does in fact have one – and very grateful I was to it in the early stages! I flicked back nearly every chapter to keep myself oriented. There are elements on the cast list that seem a bit confusing initially, in keeping with the rest of the book! I won’t say more as you have to see it. But the writing really is exceptional – you’d like that about it. 🙂

  17. I was really interested to see your comment about book length. In fact, I started formulating a reply which turned into a possible post on my own weblog about the increasing length of novels and my speculations about the cause(s). But then I tried to find some statistics, and there weren’t any. So it’s hard to know for sure that novels really are getting longer, or whether for some reason the ones we pay attention to are increasing, but maybe not all of them.

    I did find that ‘first-time’ novelists are recommended to write novels of 80-100,000 words generally, on all those ‘how to write’ websites but also on weblogs by agents. They call this length the ‘sweet spot’ as it means the book is long enough for a purchaser not to feel short-changed and that it’s worth the money, but not so long that it becomes uneconomic to publish. From which I extrapolate that publishers are not wild about very long novels, and you have to be an established popular author or have a really excellent manuscript in order to get your long book published.

    I’m not sure any of that is very helpful, sorry. But I am looking forward to your review of ‘The Luminaries’, and I’m intrigued by Dodie Smith’s memoirs. Do you think you could stomach the biography in a sort of compare and contrast exercise? 🙂

    • How very, very interesting to hear that publishers think there is a ‘sweet spot’ somewhere between economic necessity and reader temptation. I didn’t know that a word length was recommended and find that most enlightening, too. I think publishers are sort of enamoured of the occasional huge novel, ever since Vikram Seth started it with A Suitable Boy – it’s something they can put in press releases and have people exclaim over. Sort of an easy shock tactic. But I think you’re perfectly right, and there has also to be a special reason for publishing them. As for Dodie, I’m nearing the end of the third volume, and much as it’s a marathon, I am encouraged by the end being nearly in sight. Compare and contrast is always a good idea – I used to write ALL my academic work like that because I thought it was such a wonderfully easy device. You are kind to remind me of it! 🙂

  18. I was thinking about the length of books the other day as I was convinced the average length must have increased, not a bad thing if the extra words are used well but sometimes…. I think books have followed the film industry who now seem to make longer films too!

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