Archive for May 2016

Underworld – a modern classic?

I once bought a book from a book shop (those were the days!).  I can’t remember what the book was but I remember the plastic bag it came in.  On it was a Mark Twain quote: ‘A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read.’  There’s a lot of truth in that.  I’m sure we’ve all got classics on our bookshelf, physical or virtual, that, for whatever reason, lie unopened or half finished.


I try to mix up my reading so that I have a healthy dose of contemporary fiction, non-fiction and ‘classics’.  I decided recently that it was time for a classic and a meaty one at that.   A not-so-brief search on goodreads, Amazon, etc. led me to a not-so-brief novel (827 pages): Underworld by Don DeLillo; published in 1997, a nominated finalist for the ’98 Pulitzer Prize and runner-up for the New York Times’ best work of American fiction of the past 25 years (the winner was Beloved by Toni Morrison as you asked!).  Sounds like a classic, albeit a modern one, to me.

The novel has been described as an example of the ‘great American novel’, a phrase used for other such modern works as Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.  Like both of those novels, Underworld is ambitious in its scope.  Its characters include Frank Sinatra, J Edgar Hoover, Lennie Bruce and everyday folk, the latter of whom, we return to regularly throughout the book, including Nick Shay, a waste management executive and one of the book’s main protagonists.  The book spans the Cold War period kicking off with an extended description of a famous 1951 Giants-Dodgers game: a self-contained novella (and was published as such) whose tentacles wind their way through the rest of the book, which encapsulates the Cuban Missile Crisis, a motorway serial killer, AIDS, waste management, the mafia, etc.


(Photo: LIFE magazine)

The author grew up in Brooklyn and this comes through in the book.  You can almost smell the air, the combination of heat coming off the New York pavements, doused by  the water from the ubiquitous fire hydrant.  The descriptions are wonderful, one of my favourites being, ‘…he looks out over the rooftops, the tar beaches with their clotheslines and pigeon coops and splatted condoms…’

The characters are also interesting and well-written and the novel discreetly links them creating a more cohesive work, while adopting a non-linear narrative.  Despite this, or even because of this, the novel is sprawling and disconnected.  Perhaps this is the point.  For me, what was lacking was a stronger sense of narrative and plot, both of which appear to be lacking in a number of so-called modern classics.  Or perhaps it felt sprawling and disconnected because I read it on tube journeys when instead I could have invested larger chunks of time to it.

Regardless, it’s not really a page-turner if that’s what you’re after.

In the time it’s taken me to write this blog, I’ve read The Devotion of Suspect X, a 2005 novel by Keigo Higashino.  If you want a page-turner and enjoy detective novels with a twist then this comes highly recommended.


Apocalypse Now!

One of the reasons I started this blog was the overwhelming choice and recommendations of books out there.  Sites like Goodreads are great but, in my experience, you can’t beat a personal recommendation.  The ‘post-apocalypse’ genre has been around since at least the end of the Second World War and the dawn of nuclear weapons, and its popularity shows no sign of abating, evidenced by hit TV shows like The Walking Dead and movies including Mad Max: Fury Road.  Post-apocalyptic novels appear to be in even greater abundance.  I’m not a particular fan of the genre but have read a few good books, a couple of which I’d highly recommend.

Station Eleven

The first is Station Eleven, a 2014 novel written by Emily St. John Mandel.  The novel deals with the aftermath of a flu pandemic which wipes out over 95% of the population.  The novel, like others in the genre, follows the trials and tribulations of a diverse core of individuals and jumps back and forwards in time in the process, allowing us to understand the characters in more depth.  The novel also adopts a common device in that it links the individuals in clever ways, weaving a rich tapestry which is natural in its telling.  While I read the book a number of months ago, one poignant moment which comes to mind is the establishment of a ‘Museum of the Civilization’ within an airport – which has become a centre of civilisation itself.  The museum includes objects of no practical use in a world with  no electricity, including cell phones and, god forbid, iPads.  It’s well written and constructed, has interesting and likeable characters, and is a thoughtful perspective on life.

World War Z

The second of my recommendations is Max Brook’s, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.  Some of you will be familiar with  the 2013 film World War Z, starring Brad Pitt, which is based on the book.  I enjoyed the film but, as is so often the case, it pales in comparison with the book and presents only one strand within the books many.  The title of the book is a fair summary of what you get: it’s not played for laughs and is written as a serious treatise on humanity’s battle with zombies.  The strength of the book isn’t in its characters – the book is made up of a series of interviews – but in its painting of a multifaceted picture of zombie war.  One of the enjoyable aspects of the book is that it makes you think, ‘oh, yeah. I didn’t think of that’, such as how the zombie virus is spread, e.g. through bureaucratic ineptitude, people and organ smuggling, etc.  The development of military tactics is another interesting aspect of the book, as zombies, as we all know from our day-to-day lives, aren’t great respecters of military hardware.  It’s a real page turner which you’ll be glad you read come the zombie apocalypse!