Posted by: Corri van de Stege | December 5, 2009

Indefinite Pursuits

The year’s drawing to an end and so are the noughties.  Papers are being filled with ‘definitive lists’ of great events, the most read books, the best books, etc.  I realise that I haven’t kept pace at all these last few months, I’ve stopped recording my reading lists, have been slack on reviews.  All this made me think, again, about the advantages and disadvantages of retiring, of chucking it all in and start a different life.  Not yet, though.  I’ll come to that some time; meanwhile I’ll brood on the list of advantages and disadvantages of retiring…

For now, I’m going to draw up that list of books that I’ve recently read but not reviewed.   This, mind you, is purely for my own satisfaction: I want a complete record of the books I’ve read this year, finish the 2009 list to the bitter end.  Why?  Well, I don’t know, just because I want to, I’m a finisher in the jargon of business staff surveys.

Here it goes, without a sense of the sequence in which they were carried along with me, on trains, travels, bedtime reading or whatever:  this is the pile of books and short stories that I’ve recently read or half read.  

Helen Garner – The Spare Room.  This is the story of Helen who agrees to put up her old friend Nicola, knowing that she has cancer.  Nicola is determined to use ‘alternative’ ways of beating her cancer, even though it seems apparent to everyone around her that she is fooling herself and insists on everyone else agreeing that this treatment, that is only available in Melbourne, hence her self-invite to Helen, will indeed prove to be the miracle cure.  It’s a quick read, this book and well written, even though I found both Helen and Nicola quite irritating at times in their apparent inability to tell each other what they really think.

Jonathan Franzen – The Corrections.  How come I never read this before?  The writing is tremendous and once can only envy the seemingly effortless way in which the stories unfold – stories of members of Enid and Alfred’s family, Alfred slowly descending into Parkinson’s disease and his long suffering wife Enid for ever trying to have a full family gathering for a last Christmas, their three children, their idiosyncrasies, hopes, differences.   It is a marvellous book and if you haven’t read it yet, ask a copy for Christmas!

Patrick Gale – Notes from an Exhibition.  Another family saga, but quite a different one from the above.  Rachel Kelly moves into Antony’s student life and stays, despite the initial unlikeliness of their being a couple or even staying together.  Antony more or less rescues Rachel from an otherwise bleak future; she is pregnant by a lover who has jilted her.  They do however stay together and make a life in Cornwall, first in Antony’s father’s house which subsequently becomes theirs.  They have a family, three children and Rachel becomes a well-known painter whose demons only Antony and their friend, the local doctor is aware of.  Who is Rachel, where does she come from?  Her children and husband only find out after her death, and having left behind some new and quite extraordinary paintings.  The twists and turns of this family’s life slowly unfold, when we are taken along the journey, sometimes hearing Rachel’s voice, then Antony’s and then one of her children’s, now adults.

Philip Roth’s Indignation is quite a different story, about a studious and intense young man, who escapes from his hardworking overprotective butcher father from Newark New Jersey, only to end up at a university in Ohio where life turns out to be even more suppressive than the claustrophobia of the parents’ home.  It is as if he is on an almost relentless path towards his own destruction, growing up painfully and foolishly, resisting the imposed rigours, questioning settled convictions and beliefs, and ultimately being sent to his death.  It is extremely well written, the terribly suppressed atmosphere of the 50s, the Korean War, the inability to extract oneself from being classified according to one’s parents’ beliefs and class, these are all painted very vividly and this is a really satisfying read.

And then, then there are the short stories, the ones that you have on your bedside table, or can read whilst on a train journey.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s collection ‘The Thing Around her Neck’ is just brilliant.  Every story, bleak and real, not a word too many and just so fluently written, is great.  I love the simplicity and the starkness of her stories, which are also amusing and funny – she understands human nature, the women who are trying so hard to fit into their own lives, to make the most of it, yet, somehow, never quite escaping their own harnesses.  In ‘A private Experience’, the third story in the book, two women find themselves in the same hideaway when caught up in a riot.  One is from a rich and comfortable background, the other poor; one has lost a Burberry handbag in the melee when trying to escape from the riot, the other her necklace, probably plastic.  It is as if you are there with them, see the unbridgeable gap between them, their pains and sorrows worlds apart, private, yet they spend the night together in that hideous room. The next day the rich girl finds out what has happened to her twin sister.

If you are a lover of short stories, this is for you.  Or give it to someone who loves short stories!

Actually, William Boyd’s Fascination is a similar ‘must read’, although the stories evoke quite different moods and experiences.  I enjoy Boyd’s novels, but his stories as just as good.  These stories move around the place, are very unusual in the sense of evoking characters and places which range wide across the globe and in time.  There are stories about the Second World War, the nineteenth century, about Los Angeles and Russia.  In A Haunting, the narrator carefully notes in his notebook his descent into a kind of madness.  It starts on a plane, on the way from London to Los Angeles and with a faint headache.  The story moves from London to Los Angeles and then to Edinburgh, where at long last he thinks he discovers what has been haunting him.  However, others seem more sceptical, in particular his wife, who refuses to have him back.  Nevertheless, once he has discovered the Kilmaron effect, he is able to fight it and finds that he is free from his feelings for every ….   Well, go and read the story.  I’m not going to give it away here.  It’s fascinating.    Every story has its own fascinating twists and turns, life in all its unexpected details.

Well, I’m quite pleased with this list now.  I’m up to date.  Next year I’m going to try and do something different – this is too much hard work!  Unless, of course, I decide to retire…  But I don’t think so.



  1. I still haven’t ready anything by Roth…I know, it is a travesty! I also really want to read The Corrections. Thanks for the condensed reviews…you have piqued my interest!

  2. I haven’t read The Corrections yet, I read a good reviiew of Alice Munro by Franzen recently which convinced me I should.

    I’m a big fan of Adichie and Garner so am glad to hear you enjoyed their latest.

  3. Kathleen – Roth is well worth a try – travesty or not! Enjoy your December reading…
    Sarah – Adichie is one of my favourite writers, but having read The Corrections, I’m definitely going to find some more by Franzen as well. Whether I get round to it?

  4. I read The Corrections one December in the midst of a mad family Christmas. Loved it, and it made me see my family in a different light too.

    Well done on getting through all your reviews. I’m interested in the Adichie (since I enjoyed her first novel) and the Patrick Gale and maybe the Boyd. I seem to remember reading “A Good Man in Africa” or at least trying to. I also have a remaindered copy of “Stars and Bars”.

  5. Pete: aahh yes, how normal one’s family suddenly seems even if you always thought they were the most idiosynchratic lot on earth. At least that’s what I used to think (still think, a lot of the times….). I’m talking about parents and siblings here, not my own offspring… of course!

    Actually, I also (re) read Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach, and think a lot of him. Greatly enjoyed his most recent novels, but haven’t read Stars and Bars. Will get to it!

  6. Hi, Sea – Me, too, much to organize to reflect what I’ve done/accomplished and will get to it. Seems I have Xmas gift lists calling to me at the moment.

    I’ve been blog absent for awhile and find myself loathe to spend hours writing blogs but do NOT want to lose blog connections/friends so I may turn into a commenter, I dunno.

    It’s always a pleaseure to come here and hear where you’ve been, what you’re up to in books, etc. I had forgotten about the Roth novel; I may look into it.

    I am still deep in the pages of the Elegance of the Hedgehog, with all kinds of magazines and book review selections (for local paper) finished in between.

    As we wend and wind through this holiday season, I hope you’re having a wonderful time, that the snow is nothing short of Xmas-card variety, that the cold is only something you experience when running from car to front door and that there’s something sweet and savory on the stove whenever you’re in the mood for it.

    Here’s to celebrations great and small around the globe.

  7. Hi Oh – what is it with us, that we want to be able to do it all? Something has to give, sometimes and especially this time of the year. Too many distractions, expectations, things to organise. It’s nice to know that others sympathise, understand your own dilemmas because they experience them similarly. Great to hear from you and hope you find the right balance. Blogs must not become a chore, definitely not! Better to leave some space in between the postings… It’s always great to pass by your wonderful pictures and commentary. Hope you find your own peace and quiet in this busy time, only two more weeks and I will have a week off and will reflect somewhat more…

  8. […] story of the American family, and has been compared with The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen (reviewed previously).    Definitely a good read. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Jonathan […]

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