Monday, January 4, 2010

Last & First

The Time Traveller’s Wife is the kind of book responsible for the dilemma I experience with reading. As previously anticipated I received a copy for Christmas and spent most of the Christmas holidays reading it.

Firstly the positive…
It inspires the desire to read, with its interesting and original story of Henry, a man who is uncontrollably snatched from one time period to another. These shifts in time occasionally bring him into contact with important people from other periods in his life, enabling him to visit his childhood self and other people of personal importance. He is able to spend time with his wife throughout her childhood, preparing her for their eventual meeting and the novel alternates between his and her points of view.

Time travel stories have always appealed to me. There have been TV series like Dr Who and Time Tunnel; films like The Terminator and Back to the Future series, adaptations of HG Well’s The Time Machine (and of course the original book); Connie Willis’s award winning novel The Doomsday Book and so many other examples of time travel being explored.
Unlike all of those, Niffenegger’s book is not likely to be described as “Science Fiction” even though a scientific reason for Henry’s condition is lightly touched (some kind of genetic anomaly). This book’s major focus is on the effects of the time traveller’s condition upon his relationship with his wife Clare; effects that (to me) did not always ring true and left me wondering whether real people would react in the same way as this books characters when faced with the particular realities of their relationship and experiences. For example, would a woman be so accepting of her husband having an extramarital, sexual encounter with a younger woman – even if that woman was herself, many years before, during one of his time travelling episodes?

And next the negative…

This book is also an example of what annoys me about modern writing that makes me think twice about starting a book.
Like so many modern writers, Niffenegger follows the compulsion to soil her craft with the use of explicit sexual encounters and graphic language. What is it about today’s writers that make them think it’s necessary to include at least one obligatory oral sex scene in their novels? It’s a practice so common that it has become a cliché.

Many years ago an English work mate was telling me about his favourite author, a writer of pulp thrillers who, as part of his popular formula, always included “one fook per book”. It seems to me that otherwise talented “literary” writers today see it necessary to fall into the same formulaic trap, spicing up their stories with gratuitously explicit sexual encounters and obscene language. Is it REALLY necessary for a writer to use the crudest terms in the English language to describe genitalia?

Prior to reading this book I had been seriously considering Niffenegger’s next novel, but after reading this one – despite its many good points, I’m not likely to follow it up with any more of her writing.

The Time Traveller’s Wife was the last book I completed in 2009. The first to be finished in 2010 was Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing, a book that I purchased through a series of mistakes and misunderstandings.
I saw it praised on a book blog and immediately assumed it was the same book I had recently left on the shelves of a charity shop’s book section. I was disappointed at missing out on such a highly recommended book that I could have bought for a few dollars, but my disappointment was eased when I found that I could buy an autographed copy direct from the author. Several days after placing my order it arrived and I realised that it had NOT been the book I had previously seen for a bargain price, which will now remain unidentified as the shop is a four hour drive from home.

Hill’s Howards End is a collection of writings that every book-lover should enjoy. Each chapter addresses a different aspect of Hill’s relationship with books, literature and the varied personalities involved with their creation. It is a personal insight into Hill herself, as well as to the many writers she has been privileged to meet. Along with anecdotes about people like Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming and Edith Sitwell, Hill writes about the memories stirred up by the different types of books (diaries, pop-up books, literary classics and more) that she rediscovers on her own bookshelves. In particular we are given a glimpse into her love of both Virginia Woolf and Thomas Hardy.
After my conflicting feelings about The Time Traveller’s Wife I was quite pleased to read Hill saying that love is “the most difficult thing to write about successfully. It is the litmus test of greatness in a novelist if a love story moves and convinces and never once makes the reader grimace, smirk or feel embarrassed. Modern novelists are bad at writing about love because they feel that it has to mean writing explicitly about sex.”
I certainly see that comment being applicable to parts of The Time Traveller’s Wife.

Susan Hill concludes her book with a list of her “Final Forty” which could be described as those books she would find as most essential if she had to cull her extensive library. Reading such a list makes it clear how subjective book choice is. Out of the forty I have only six of them in my own library – one of which is Wuthering Heights, a book that would clearly be absent from my own “Final Forty” (Read about my struggle with this book elsewhere on my blog).

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