I took a risk in March. Not a serious risk of the gambling life-savings kind, but a much tamer risk of reading a LONG book. When one already has limited reading time, why would one choose to navigate their way though a LONG book? Especially when they are trying to keep up with a 5+ books a month reading challenge? Well, this year I decided that although I have a number of books I'd like to read, I'm not going to be held prisoner to that number. Last year I didn't meet the number of books I'd hoped to read (100) but I did read a lot of books (54). Plus I had a baby so there's that. I'll admit that last year I purposefully avoided long books and upon reflection I find that a bit sad. There's nothing I love more than becoming enveloped in a long, deliciously deep story. So what if reading one book takes the time it would to read three or four? If I enjoy it, it's worth it. So that was one of my new approaches to the reading challenge I set for myself this year.
This year I split the difference and am aiming to read 75 books. I'm already five behind but I couldn't give two hoots. Well, that's not true. There is a small part of me that is being a little obsessive about that message on Goodreads telling me how far I've fallen behind, but I'm getting better and better at ignoring that small part of me because she is also the same part of me who gives me a good rollicking when I don't manage to put clean laundry away for three days straight (but hey, it's CLEAN!) and she's the part of me who always notices how filthy my laptop keyboard is (oh b*gger off, it's a skill writing the first draft of a novella while eating a sandwich and pumping breastmilk!) and I'm getting much better at silencing her. Anyway, let's get to the two books I read in March and how they couldn't have been more different... as were my feelings towards them.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanighara
So this is the LONG book I refer to, at 720 pages (in hardcover). It was sold to me as the story of four male friends - Jean-Baptise (JB), Malcolm, Jude, Willem, embarking on their post-college lives in New York City, however, once I was about a third into it, I felt this was not really what the story was about and in many ways, this "mis-selling" did affect my enjoyment of it. I refer more than once to my acquiring this book being a transaction because I spent over £20 on this book as in addition to the Kindle version (which I think was £7.99) I also purchased the audiobook version (for £12.99) because I wanted to listen to it while walking with Baby Bird. At this stage - still somewhere under 30% of the way in - I was intrigued and I was enjoying the four very different characters that were brought to life through smart dialogue and several astute observations. However, the book inexplicably changed tact to focus firstly more on the friendship between two of the characters Jude and Willem, to secondly, being the undeniable life story of Jude. And boy, oh boy, does Jude have a life story to tell. If you want to read this book perhaps you'd better skip the next paragraph because it may hint at some spoilers.
The drip-drip revelation of tragedy after tragedy after tragedy in Jude's life is exhausting. You get to a point where you sort of can't believe that somebody has endured so much evil and when you consider this as a reality rather than a fictional account, you can't help but feel moved and affected. But if I was supposed to feel Jude's pain, I didn't, which is unusual for me as I'm particularly over-sensitive and have been known to wince, and feel my hands and knees burn when I see people trip over and on more than one occasion I have shed a tear upon seeing strangers cry some distance away in a public space. For poor Jude, I couldn't really express more than a detached, half-hearted "oh dear". It just felt endless and relentless, and thanks to some of the circumstances, yes, very hard to believe. The way in which Jude dealt with it also maddened me. While he would grovel and apologise to those he loved in situations when there was no need to do so, he was unbreakably stubborn about helping himself even when those same people beggd him to. Of course, I haven't been through any of the things he went throught, but again it just left me feeling like things didn't add up... and also it was repetetive. This crap happens, more crap happens, nothing changes chain of events pulled me down and I so desperately at times wanted the light relief of flamboyant artist JB and metrosexual Malcolm to pop back in and give the story some much needed new energy and dynamics. Also, Willem? Surely no person this "perfect" exists? Even his rampant sexual history and adultery didn't seem to taint his character in the author's eyes...
So you may think my "beef" with this book was all plot and character based? Well, no. As I've mentioned before the structure was a little erratic (from four main characters to two to one) and this just seem a little "wandering" and not very well edited. The writing also didn't move me. While, yes, Hanigara can often write some very effective prose, the tendency to over-explain or draw out a point or conversation three pages over what was necessary left me scratching my head at why I was still reading something that could have been explained - beautifully or elegantly still - in a few sentences. Frankly, I found the writing style a little bizarre and lacking in the spark or warmth that I need from such LONG books in order to feel whisked away by them, forgetting their length, rather than dragged along, all the while checking how many more pages there were to go....
I will, however, say that the audio book version was a bit good. By purchasing the in-Kindle version, I could swap from the ebook to the audio book and always pick it up at the place I'd left off. And the narrator Oliver Wyman had the perfect voice for the story and he even managed to perfect slightly different intonations and accents for each character. He became a friend to me in a story that often left me feeling a little lonely, which again is strange when the story was supposed to be about friendship. But I'm glad I gave the audiobook a go and I will definitely be trying out more in the future.
I've added on my Goodreads review because believe it or not I didn't highlight a single word from this story (which is a little telling):
"I can't figure out if I'm relieved this story is over because it was so long or because it was so harrowing with very little let-up... Not that I mind harrowing. I'm okay reading about cruelty, evil and suffering, because although this is fiction, it is a reality of life. I'm also not saying that the plodding on and on and on with more and more grief is what limited my enjoyment of the book, but I definitely feel the unnecessary length, the odd use of tenses (or lack of history or dates to reveal time), the excessive detail and odd-choice of third-person narrator for such a personal story left me wanting so much more from such an epic-length novel that also lacked any sort of purpose, in my opinion.
That said, I do think there is a moral of this story: Get therapy."
War Horse by Michael Morpurgo
As much as A Little Life was harrowing and tragic, War Horse was uplifting and heart-warming, which is odd because the former is about upper middle class men with good jobs in New York and the latter is about the First World War, the bloodiest war of recent history. Of course the story isn't free of brutality or suffering or death but it was a breath of fresh air to read War Horse, which I did very quickly because it is a short novel. I believe it's written for children, but it doesn't hold back with language that is poetic and words that are challenging even for the well-read. That's exactly my kind of children's book!
Told from the perspective of Joey a thorough-bred horse who finds himself on the battlefields of France throughout much of WWI, War Horse was gently told, gently developed and gently made brilliant by believable characters all united by the tragedy of war, even when fighting for opposite sides. It's a humbling story and one I cannot wait to read to Baby Bird when he's old enough. (FYI a teacher friend of mine said that the book is read by 10-11 year olds in the UK.)
Now, over to you, what are you reading at the moment? And what are your thoughts on really long books? Can you remember the last 500+ page book you really, really enjoyed? I'd love to hear all about them in the comments.
Frances M. Thompson
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