What I read on Holiday

I went on Holiday to Greece (it's nice) which is why I didn't update this website for a while. Here are some thoughts about the books I read on holiday. Some of them I even finished!

The Overstory by Richard Powers

Short stories offer writers the chance to experiment with form, subject matter, narrative. They allow a writer to try ideas that won't stretch to the length of a novel, ideas that readers wouldn't tolerate for long, or even ideas that are just not that good. The best short story writers can do more in a few pages than most people can with 80,000 words, or hours. Think of Kafka, Borges, or any Russian writer.

Richard Powers uses the short story in order to repeat himself over and over again, each repetition increasingly boring and ridiculous. The book is a sort of boiling frog endurance test. Most readers can take the first few stories. You enjoy the first, the second is okay, the third elicits a certain queasiness. Only paid reviewers get much further. From reading the wikipedia page it appears that the Overstory isn't just a collection of short stories, but the part that I read seemed to be and I will review it as such.

So what is the story that we are repeatedly told in this book? We meet a character, and their family. Then we tear through decades of their life. Invariably this is a life which is very dramatic. Something very bad generally happens.

The characters in these stories come from all walks of life. They are born in disparate countries and circumstances. Mostly they immigrate to the USA. All these characters however are obviously actually middle class Americans. In fact they are all obviously the author, Richard Powers.

The unique selling point (USP) of the stories is that there is a theme that connects them. Not only are they all the same story, they also share a thematic bond. What is the theme? It's trees. Every story features trees. The trees will be tied into the story a bit. Maybe the trees will be a metaphor for the human characters. Maybe there will be four children, and then their dad will plant four trees (one for each kid). Maybe then another child will be born. Maybe dad will plant another tree (THE TREES ARE THE CHILDREN)! Something bad will happen to some of the trees, and also to some of the children (THE CHILDREN ARE THE TREES). The use of the theme of trees allows us to see that humanity and nature is connected. The tree theme is a very high level and powerful literary device.

According to the 'Reception' section of this book's wikipedia page it has won a Pulitzer Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. One reviewer called it "a deep meditation on the irreparable psychic damage that manifests in our unmitigated* separation from nature". In truth 'The Overstory' is a piece of experimental writing that seeks to test how much irreparable psychic trauma can can be inflicted by having someone read the same boring story again and again forever.

2/5

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

I loved this. 'The Idiot' fits neatly into my favourite genre: 'plotless books where nothing much happens to a weird narrator' (see Tao Lin, Tom McCarthy etc). The book follows an 18 year old through thei first year at College. They spend this year studying topics of little utility and become infatuated with an annoying and pretentious man. Then they go to Hungary for a bit, then they come back.

The narrator gets an email account on arriving at university, and their life quickly splits into real life and email life - where the email life is the one they care more about. Batuman said that this book was written in/near the nineties, and that time has turned it into a historical novel. The email obsession is one manifestation of this, as are the strangely abundant unix references, and the inability to easily contact people. It's strange to read modern western characters who have problems caused by not being able to get in contact with someone they want to talk to. Such difficulties are unimaginable now.

4/5

Exhalation and Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Short stories offer writers the chance to experiment with form, subject matter, narrative. They allow a writer to try ideas that won't stretch to the length of a novel, ideas that readers wouldn't tolerate for long, or even ideas that are just not that good. The best short story writers can do more in a few pages than most people can with 80,000 words, or hours. Think of Kafka, Borges, or any Russian writer.

Ted Chiang uses the short story to imagine worlds where the rules of reality and fundamentally different. He comes up with a wild concept, and then follows that concept to its conclusion, or near enough. I've seen these stories referred to as being science fiction, but I think they tend to be more extreme than that genre generally allows for. For example one story is the idea of young earth creationism, and imagines what a universe where that could be true looks like. It is very strange. These stories often take a while to reveal their conceit, and part of the pleasure of reading them is gradually coming to understand what freaky thing Ted has come up with this time.

The stories in these books have won a wide variety of science fiction prizes, but nothing nearly as prestigious as those won by 'The Overstory'. Make of that what you will.

4/5

Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill

The story of a marriage told through the medium of semi-connected aphorisms. Every chapter exudes an oily film of misery. Like Nietzsche if he got mixed up between life affirming and life disavowing. And was married.

It kind of seems like the author read Renata Adler's Speedboat and thought 'what if I do that but less enjoyably'.

I'll be honest, I didn't really read enough of this book to be able to rate it fairly. Maybe it gets better, maybe I just wasn't in the right frame of mind. Maybe I need to stop reading novels written by Americans.