A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell is a 12-volume sequence of novels that has been lauded as one of the greatest works of 20th century English literature. The books start in the late 1920s and take us up to the 1960s, feature a huge cast of characters and offer a remarkable vision of changing social history, a deftly sustained narrative, some wonderfully memorable characters and a stark vision of the impact that time wreaks on our lives.
...something long and epic
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck somehow slipped through the cracks for me. I’ve spent the summer rectifying this and I can see why this novel has become such an enduring classic and a favoured choice amongst English teachers. The story of the Joad family, uprooting from their arid Oklahoma farm, fleeing poverty and industrialisation of farming in search of the American Dream is beautifully told, incredibly moving and a highly effective piece of political propaganda. If you haven’t read it yet, do. If you have, perhaps it’s time for a re-read?
Han Kang’s quirky Booker Prize winning The Vegetarian opened my, and I suspect many other’s, eyes to South Korean literature. I was curious, then, when Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, a Korean-American, came out to rave reviews. Especially, as I have a soft spot for epic family sagas, the kind that sucks you in and makes you cry when you finish as you feel you’ve become a part of the family. However, Pachinko has turned out to be a tricky book to write about. It has many strong points but almost as many faults. I learned about the immigrant experience, Japanese racism towards Koreans, but missed some more historical context. There were characters in this book I really felt I got to know while others remained like card-board cut-outs. All in all, an uneven reading experience but one which still, somehow, managed to keep me going.
4321 by Paul Auster is a novel about Archie Ferguson, American grandson of a Jewish immigrant. Born in 1958 to hard-working parents, he grows up, negotiates adolescence, plays baseball, gets to know his extended family, lives through the major events of the 20th century. So far, so predictable. But because this is Auster, there is a twist: this is not one linear narrative; it is four stories, four lives in one. Same boy, four different childhoods, four different paths. Remarkably broad in scope yet fantastically rich and detailed, this is Paul Auster’s post-modern version of The Great American Novel.
I’ll admit right at the beginning of this review that I think this is one of the best historical novels I have ever read. And I’m deeply envious of anyone who hasn’t yet discovered it. You have an enormous treat in store. I first read this epic novel in one long sitting from cover to cover in my early twenties and I’ve returned to it many times over the years, discovering something new on every fresh reading.
If you’re at all disgusted by bodily fluids, don’t even think about reading this book. If you’re not, prepare yourself for a firework of a novel by a master storyteller set in a part of the world which I’m willing to bet you’ve never read anything about before. Kim Leine’s novel The Prophets of Eternal Fjord, set in Greenland during Danish colonial rule, won the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2013 and is finally out in English.
There has been a lot of hype about this book and some very polarising reviews. Comparisons have been made to Dickens – which likely refer more to the rather convoluted and dramatic storyline (Oliver Twist’s endless “mishaps” for example), and improbable rescues, than the style or language of writing. Donna Tart’s strength in fact is (as she has shown us with The Secret History) her ability to inhabit a younger voice with credibility and she does not fail us here, wielding her secret weapon – great dialogue – with pace and reality. We like Theo for all his self-absorption and watch the oncoming twists and falls that meet him on the way with mixed dread and hope. It is not without its faults – unlikely plotline convergences (what a coincidence!) and the last pages would have benefited from some heavy editing as it descends into syrupy philosophy (“We can’t escape who we are”) but it is nevertheless a book worth reading. From the first calamitous event, we are pulled along the roller-coaster story: gripping, achingly sad, action-packed, fateful, and very unputdownable.
An American Wild West family epic spanning five generations from the 1850s to present day, from cattle farming to oil bonanza via the American Civil War. This is a hard-core Western complete with scalp collecting natives, corrupt sheriffs and torture of various kinds. It’s not for the fainthearted, but a riveting read if you can stomach a bit of violence.
The Agony and the Ecstasy is a must read if you are travelling to Tuscany, Florence or Rome (your trip will be infinitely more interesting) or if you are remotely interested in art history or the Italian Renaissance. And even if you are none of the above, this is a worthwhile book. The Agony and the Ecstasy is the story of Michelangelo Buonarotti – Italian sculptor, painter, poet and architect – and a very enjoyable lesson in history. Read full Review