I’ll be honest, my social life in San Pedro de Macorís (the town I’m currently living in*) is pretty limited. I spend all day with the staff at my MFI (who are great fun) and evenings with the family I’m living with (who are just lovely) but I don’t regularly go out for beers with a big group of mates. Where I come from we have a phrase to describe people like me – Billy No Mates. For people who don’t know me, please don’t think that I’m usually such a ‘Billy’ – I’ve got a great bunch of friends at home – I just don’t think it’s that easy to make a load of really close friends in just a few months in a town where I am the only foreigner.
But I’m actually really enjoying the quiet life. In the evenings, if I’m not chatting to the people in my house I’ll probably either be surfing the web, writing down my thoughts or reading. This blog is about the latter. What I’ve read while I’ve been out here (this won’t seem very much as I’m a particularly slow reader!) and what I’m reading. I’ve only got one book left which should last me through Haiti but I’d also love your recommendations as I head over to Colombia. I’ve really enjoyed each one of these books so would encourage anyone to give them a go. Please don’t take this as a book review: it is definitely not that. Especially as I read a couple of these some time ago and am going off hazy recollections. I just thought it may be of interest, whether you’ve read them or not.
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
This recently-published book received a lot of publicity. For a number of different reasons. Firstly, it followed on from The Corrections, a novel which won Franzen great acclaim when it was published in 2001, and so Franzen fans were hoping for something good. 2001 – but Freedom was published in 2010? Yes – it took him 9 years to write it. Franzen fans were hoping for something especially good. People really got talking when Franzen was invited onto the Oprah Winfrey show. Franzen and Winfrey had famously fallen out because she wanted to feature The Corrections in her Book Club and he declined. Come 2010, Franzen has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, a reconciliation has taken place and Winfrey has hailed the book a ‘masterpiece’. And the critics generally followed suit, frequently comparing it to Dickens and Tolstoy. The Guardian newspaper called Freedom ‘The Novel of the Century‘ even though we had another 90 years to go! And then finally there was the giant cock-up. Publishing house HarperCollins realised they’d made a monumental blunder when they discovered that the first 80,000 copies of the UK edition that had been sent to bookstores were actually draft copies of the novel, littered with spelling and grammatical mistakes. 8,000 had already been sold and these were recalled. The rest were pulped. I bought one of the 8,000 and didn’t send mine back. There were quite a few mistakes but it didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the book.
And enjoy it I did. Immensely. The Tolstoy and Dickens comparison is not made (I think) due to the way that Franzen writes – one of the things I’ve always enjoyed about Dickens in particular is the richness of his descriptions, something which isn’t so evident here – but more the subject matter, or the way that Tolstoy, Dickens and Franzen all use a few central characters to describe society as a whole. And I think Franzen does that really well for the modern era. I’d be interested to see if Americans agree with me because Freedom focuses on US society – something that I’m not greatly familiar with – but my impression (which also stems from what I see in the UK and through global media) is that he does a very good job. I suppose it depends on how you view the world though, because it’s pessimistic. If you’re an optimist then you’ll see things differently, but it’s an interesting take on modern society nonetheless. The book can be quite crude and explicit at times but, again, Franzen’s only portraying the world as he sees it.
This book really is awesome. When I finished I had that amazing feeling when you come to the end of something epic. Jubilation, a little nostalgia and a yearning to go right back to the beginning and start again.
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
I love it when books make me laugh. I’ll be honest, I tend to find TV and film much funnier than literature, but then I suppose visual media has the advantage of being, well, visual. TV and film also has audio on its side and so I think that literature has to work especially hard to make us laugh to the same degree. But I laughed all the way through this book. It’s relatively old as well (published in 1961) and so I think (humour-wise) it’s stood the test of time very well, and will do for years to come. There are not many books – or indeed sitcoms/films for that matter – that have proved consistently funny to different generations, and for that reason alone I think that Catch-22 is a great book.
But it also does a brilliant job of satirising war and ridiculing its logic. As well as questioning the nature of war itself, it focuses on the sort of things that make a war drag out – bureaucracy, tactics, poor leadership – whether that be in terms of time, money or body count. You can probably attribute a lot of the themes evoked by the book to many of the wars of the modern era, and so Catch-22 seems particularly relevant. Catch-22 makes you laugh but it also makes you think. And question.
All this said, I’m not sure the style of the book would be to everyone’s taste. There’s an awful lot going on and it all happens very quickly (this is intentional). If you’re only interested in novels that allow you to completely lose yourself in a rich and detailed plot, this book isn’t for you. One thing I did find, though, is that Heller has an amazing vocabulary. I found myself jotting down word after word, going through them with a dictionary and then adding them to my ‘words to learn’ list.
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
I’ve only got Oliver Twist still to read and will then be looking for recommendations. Got any?
*I’m now (at time of publishing) living in Haiti. I’ll admit that I’ve returned late to a draft!