Friday, February 13, 2009

Recent and current reading

Last week I finished Last Train to Kummersdorf by Leslie Wilson, a vivid and pacy book about two teens stuck in a collapsing Germany as the Soviet army approaches. Great characterisation, unusual plotting and a spirit of optimism overcome the moments when my WSD antennae were on the point of pinging. Effi and Hanno seem (from the perspective who spends quite a bit of the working day with the age group) plausible 15-year olds, and it was refreshing to see WW2 from their perspectives, which were different - he had (necessarily) joined the Hitler Youth, while she was actively involved in resistance activities. The book moves fast, the writing is economical and effective but there are harrowing scenes, so be warned, not one for the under-13s. I will be teaching it next year. Ultimately, it is uplifting as well as unexpected.

Another very different, but equally engaging read was the terrific How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark, a very funny craft book I'd heartily recommend to anyone aspiring to take up the pen or assault the keyboard in the hope of publication and JK Rowling type success. Wry, dry and aphoristic, it is worth reading for the succinct exemplars of bad practice which had me rofloling during a what seemed like an interminable week.

Not so engaging: If I should die before I wake, by Han Nolan, which is a bodyswap with a white supremacist girl into the body of a Jewish girl in 1940s Warsaw...while nowhere near as maddening as Boy in Striped Pyjamas (which entered my list of top 5 bad books, although not quite displacing DVC), I find the modern day girl's slang and personality unreal, and I think the device of sick child being transported back to Holocaust has been done before and better executed. Perhaps also, it is that Nolan's work is informed by a religiosity that seems over-preachy and consequently misplaced. Far better, in my view are Morris Gleitzman's Once and its sequel Then, and Jerry Spinelli's Milkweed, as well as Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic. Not to mention non-fiction accounts e.g. Livia Bitton Jackson and Magda Denes, as well of course as Anne Frank.

Totally mind-bending and amazing - my ongoing read of Cryptonomicon, which has been sitting on my shelves for 4 years now. At NY, I noted the complete Baroque cycle on the shelves of a friend, and he raved, so I finally got round to picking up my own Stephenson and am off on a crazy read. Cryptonomicon is quite a guy's book - well, three/four male protagonists, lots of code-breaking and war stuff, and hidden treasure and erotic digressions involving stockings with seams up the back, but it is also amazingly structured with great cliffhangers - how did he survive that??? is a question that keeps cropping up. I do think it could have been pared down from its 910 small-font pages by excising perhaps, frex, the disquisition on how to eat Captain Crunch cereal...and other little meanders, but then I think to myself, thank God there are publishers brave enough to take on Stephenson and all his wild excesses, because better a book with wild excesses than more tedious literary slop. Half of me can't wait to finish so that I can get onto Quicksilver, the other half of me just wants to relish what I've got.

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