Last Orders by Graham Swift
I’d never read any Graham Swift before, but I picked up Last Orders in a thrift sale, not realizing that it had won a Man Booker Prize. I am trying to work my way through the Booker winners and nominees, and I’m just under half at my latest count. Swift is a contemporary British author, and I’ve heard his name mentioned many times in the academic work I referenced for my doctoral comps and beyond. I thought it was high time I gave him a read, and I am so glad I did. I will try and work my way through his canon now.
Last Orders appears to be an imitation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying at first blush, and the comparison does seem to hold up on a purely shallow understanding of the plot. Jack Dodds is a butcher who has died of stomach cancer, and he has requested that his best friends and his adopted son Vince take his ashes to the sea and scatter them at the Pier in Margate. This kickstarts the car trip to the seaside that the men undertake, with unexpected detours and confrontations. Now, this is where Swift diverges from Faulkner’s narrative: this isn’t just about family but about homosocial male friendships forged during and after World War II. This is about men being envious of each other and of their wives and children. Further, this is an examination of the British working class after the War and their attempts to build a future for future generations.
Swift’s style is crisp without being dense, and it’s also sly and evasive. You read midway through when you realize that there are secret relationships and hidden histories that his prose unpacks slowly. He’s infinitely more readable than Faulkner in this way, and I am so curious to see what the rest of his work will be like. I can see why this won the Booker, and I would recommend it to others, as well.
The Things That Matter by Edward Mendelsohn
My dear friend M had read Edward Mendelsohn’s The Things That Matter some years ago and got me a copy for a birthday, saying she thought I would appreciate the discussion of classic literary texts from a professor’s point-of-view. I’m a bit of an English nerd (you know, being a lifelong reader, English major in college, and PhD in English), so books about books hold a certain appeal for me. Mendelsohn is a professor of Comparative Literature, so I was further curious to see how his analysis for a trade publication would differ from the normal tomes I read for work—academic publications that are often denser and less accessible to the general reading public. It was an engaging read, though Mendelsohn and I might have a vigorous debate about more than a few of the books.
Mendelsohn writes about seven classic British novels—Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Between the Acts. His reasoning for choosing the seven novels that he did—personal taste—is not proficiently explained beyond, “These are the books that moved me,” which is fair enough for the book that he wrote. He analyzes each in order of the major themes around which he organizes them: birth, childhood, adulthood, marriage, love, parenthood, and the future/death. He conducts a close reading of each text and analyzes each in terms of the major theme, proving that life and literature are inextricably linked.
I liked reading this book, since I had read all of the novels he had chosen. I disagreed with some of his choices and felt that they were a bit staid, shall I say? I thought the chapter on Wuthering Heights was a particularly willful misreading of the abuses that Heathcliff and Cathy inflicted upon each other and on others. But the Mrs. Dalloway insights are interesting and reference Homer’s The Odyssey in a way I had never considered before. If you like classic literature and books-about-books, this might be something you’ll enjoy.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
It’s no secret that as an academic, I enjoy reading academic sendups. I also enjoy literary remakes, and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty includes BOTH. Lucky me! I’ve read three of her five novels—White Teeth, The Autograph Man, and Swing Time—and I’m trying to work my way through her other two novels. I think she’s an amazing author, and I’ve long hoped that the kind of lightning in a bottle she captured in White Teeth could somehow find its way onto her pages again. And while I don’t exactly think that On Beauty is just quite that, it is nevertheless excellent and meaty as a literary read.
Howard Belsey is a floundering academic with a book on Rembrandt long in the works. His son becomes enmeshed with his professional rival’s daughter, and the novel spirals from there into a clash of cultures and values. It’s a remake of E.M. Forster’s classic Howards End, and while you don’t need to have read it to appreciate On Beauty, there are definitely some plot points and in-jokes that make the experience richer. We follow several members of the Belsey family as they struggle to understand their lifestyles and values in relation to Howard and their hybrid American-British cultures.
If you like likeable characters, I can predict that you won’t like this book. For a book about beauty, there is a ton of ugliness here. If, however, you are interested in studies of personal philosophy and poking of fun at culture wars, then I recommend you give this book a shot. Smith is a masterful writer with lots of sly allusions that are, to my view, more accessible than Salman Rushdie’s style of writing and a great deal less pretentious than his.
The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan
I’ve finally (regretfully) reached the end of the Percy Jackson books. It’s a little bittersweet finishing an enjoyable new series. It’s been highly enjoyable, however, and I do see myself returning to the series and recommending it to younger readers along the way. The nice thing about these books is that they’re fun without taking themselves too seriously and informational about mythology without being too heavy-handed in focus. In short: they’re appropriate for the audience to whom they are addressed.
Percy is trying not to think too hard about the prophecy that hangs over his head and threatens his very life. But it can’t be helped. He is just about to turn 16, and all hell threatens to break loose, particularly because Kronos, embodying his former friend Luke, has gained unspeakable powers. The gods are threatening to turn against each other and away from humanity. Therefore, it’s up to Percy and his friends to protect the people they love, including their beloved Camp Half-Blood, broker peace, and take down Kronos.
Obviously, I’m avoiding as many spoilers as possible, but suffice it to say I left the series satisfied. I think that Riordan reached a good and solid conclusion that seemed reasonable and not too ridiculous. I’ve also made the personal choice not to keep reading the spinoff series that have emerged out of this one. I liked the neat conclusion I got from here, and I would like to keep it that way. I will leave Percy and his friends here at this point in their journey and wish them a fond farewell. It’s been a fun few weeks, and I am ready to move on to a different book adventure now.
That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis
After reading the first two books in C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, I was unprepared for the major departure in tone and style that That Hideous Strength embodied. I kept flipping back to see if my ebook was correct, and I spent a fair bit of time wondering how this connected to the other two book. Spoiler alert: it does, and it’s rather clever.
Jane is a new bride to an academic, Mark, and she spends a fair bit of time wondering how to spend her time when she’s not trying to finish her own thesis. A series of frightening dreams unnerves her, though, and she turns to a female counselor who then sends her to an underground group fighting for the survival of humanity. Meanwhile, Mark, who is bored and seeking intellectual affirmation and fulfillment, falls in with an organization called NICE, whose purpose and ethos is unclear. Mark finds himself in the thick of a plot where humanity is at stake and his job not at all the tame academic pomposity he was promised.
To say anything more would be spoilery, and I don’t want to do that. It’s a genuinely intriguing suspenseful thriller, and I kept wondering how Lewis would tie it all together. But why three stars? you might ask. That answer is simple: good old-fashioned misogyny that invoked some healthy woman-shaming and a large spoonful of obedience-in-marriage that Jane receives in order to reconcile herself to Mark’s troublesome aspects. NOPE. There was a better way to make his religious point clear, and Lewis whiffs it, from my perspective. I think that this book is interesting, but very dated in its views on women. I did, however, greatly enjoy the academic satire, of which there is plenty to be found.
The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan
Rick Riordan twists the plot a bit so that he breaks the predictability factor of the books. This is overall good for the series, as he has only one book to wrap up the story arc after this. Because I am a puzzle-person, the archetype of the maze or labyrinth has always been of interest to me (though please do not put me in one of those panic rooms), so I was probably going to find The Battle of the Labyrinth more interesting by default.
Percy and Annabeth have experienced their fair share of tension, and it escalates with the presence of Rachel Dare, a young human woman who can see through The Mist and understands who Percy truly is. She rescues him from empouli (vampyr-like womanish creatures), and that’s when the next quest emerges. Grover has been tasked to find Pan, the god of the wild, and his credibility and searcher’s license hinges on his ability to do so in the next seven days. Percy must try to find Daedalus in the labyrinth before Kronos-as-Luke does and convince him to join the side of the gods before giving Kronos unimagined powers.
It’s smart of Riordan to break stereotype a bit and to build on his world by fleshing out his present characters and adding in some new ones. Here, Rachel is an excellent foil to both Percy and Annabeth, and she is a worthy sidekick. Grover’s story takes an interesting turn, and the plot itself builds nicely, though not too dramatically, to a conclusion that will set the stage for the showdown at the very end of the series.
The Titan’s Curse by Rick Riordan
I think this middle book might have been the weakest of the series for me—it was certainly the least memorable. While Percy falls into a sort of rhythm, Rick Riordan’s plotting starts to get a little paint-by-numbers in a way that makes me wonder if his enormous book output after the Percy Jackson books is being manned by a bookmill of ghostwriters. That said, I was glad to keep inhabiting the Percy universe and learn even more obscure mythology.
Annabeth goes missing while Percy is part of a mission to rescue half-bloods Bianca and Nico from their school. Then they join up with Artemis and her young huntresses in order to return the kids to Camp Half-Blood. Concerned for the disappearance of half-bloods like Annabeth, as well as the capture of Artemis, Chiron sends a team on a quest to rescue Annabeth and Artemis. Of course, Percy forms part of their ranks, as does Artemis’s second-in-command, a mysterious and skulking young woman named Zoe Nightshade. We encounter even more magical creatures and there are wider hints about the prophecy. At the very least, the Oracle has indicated that not everyone will survive the current quest.
This book picks up a major predictability factor which made the book easy to read and a little boring simultaneously. It’s not boring enough to drop the series, but it certainly lacked the easy fun of the first two books in the series. I did, however, very much enjoy the presence of the mythical creatures, as well as the fleshing out of the Atlas story. I’ll be curious to see how Riordan starts to pull the threads together in the last two books.