Sunday, December 06, 2009

I said you've gotta stop chasing rainbows

I’m looking out for something new to read although I’m dipping into one or one things at the moment. The last two books I’ve finished were really enjoyable. Sebastian Faulks’ Engleby was rather different from his classic Birdsong but, nevertheless, compelling and powerful. It’s a first person narrative focussing on the troubled childhood and awkward university years of a socially inept but exceptionally academically gifted misfit. Progressive rock aficionado Mike Engleby is able to breeze into Cambridge but makes appalling decisions and struggles in all social situations away from the lecture halls. Dark happenings, er, happen and Engleby impacts on others’ lives dramatically but, as with many other anti-heroes, you can’t help admiring the central character’s wit and distinctiveness that highlight the humdrumness and conventionality of practically everyone else in the tale. He’s trouble though. Engleby (the novel) is quite unusual and unlike anything I’ve ever read but it’s an absorbing character study that mixes up (the darkest) comedy with plenty of insightful flourishes and magnificent set pieces.

Zoe Heller’s The Believers was a novel I just picked up, started reading without any great excitement or expectation but ended up loving. Heller paints glorious characters and her depiction of the Litvinoff family, a hugely dysfunctional group, headed by prominent liberal New York lawyer Joel and his waspish English wife Audrey. The couple’s three children Karla, Rosa and the adopted Lenny are as different as chalk, cheese and, heck, ectoplasm and the glimpses Heller offers into their lives are packed with wonderful detail and crushingly satirical elements. Essentially the plot evolves after Joel suffers a serious stroke and the family along with other fringe players come to terms with new circumstances. It’s a biting look at left wing politics, political correctness, race, religion and social class – enough for any novel to be sinking its teeth into – and hits the target again and again. Few of the characters are truly likeable but it’s a rare pleasure when key players’ selfishness and awkwardness are exposed with richly comic consequences. This is probably the most enjoyable book I’ve read all year.

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