Articles about novels

Lolita — Vladimir Nabokov

Book cover: The Annotated Lolita. This is a boring clip art image since I read an ebook and so have no nice photo of my own.

This is the fictional autobiography of one Humbert Humbert, written in his jail cell near the end of his life. He is very erudite and quite engaging despite being unhealthily obsessed with young girls. He falls in love with the title character (his landlady’s young daughter) and ends up taking her on an extended a road trip across the USA. They purport to be father and daughter but are actually lovers. At the beginning Lolita seems reasonably willing to go along with everything, but Humbert gradually reveals how controlling he is and how unhappy Lolita really is. He slowly loses his grip and eventually loses Lolita, and commits the crime that finally lands him in jail. The writing throughout is clever, inventive and endlessly rewarding to read, despite the bleak and tawdry subject matter.

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Rain — Kirsty Gunn

Did you ever read a book or watch a film where you could just tell that something awful was going to happen? You dreaded the turn of every page in anticipation of the imminent horror. And yet you just had to keep reading, to find out what actually happens.

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Wittgenstein’s Mistress — David Markson

This book is a diary written by the last person on earth. It’s not initially clear what happened to everyone else, but we find out that she has been alone for some years, travelling around in abandoned cars and living in various interesting abandoned buildings (such as museums). It becomes clear that she is becoming a bit unhinged; understandable in her circumstances. To me this book reads like a study in memory, regret and self-deception, though that makes it sound a bit grim; there is a fair bit of humour in this book. The overall tone is reminiscent of Markson’s This is Not a Novel. Wittgenstein’s Mistress is more conventional, but that wouldn’t be hard: it’s still a strange, amusing and unsettling read.

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The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists — Robert Tressell

A hundred or so years ago, the English working classes had terribly rough lives.They spent half their time working under harsh conditions and the other half desperately looking for work. They never had enough food or clothing. But despite their ragged clothing they were content to spend their lives working for the betterment of their fellow men — in particular, their employers, who did no productive work themselves but instead spent their time cheating and exploiting their clients and employees.

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Unless — Carol Shields

This affecting story has a bit of mystery and a satisfying resolution, and some lovely writing along the way. I also quite appreciated the single-word chapter titles, which reinforce an atmosphere of uncertainty throughout.

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Six Clever Girls Who Became Famous Women — Fiona Farrell

This book starts out as a day in the life of a group of six schoolgirls. This is a world that is unfamiliar to me, so it seemed exotic and yet still quite believable. After establishing the characters and putting them through some ups and downs, we fast-forward several years: we get to see the girls as adults, see how they’ve changed but how they mostly haven’t, and see how they deal with the directions their lives have taken. It’s a nice ensemble piece. The women are more or less relatable but they are all interesting, and their stories are full of nicely-rendered moments. And there are some very satisfying resolutions too.

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Anna Karenina — Leo Tolstoy

Many people consider this to be the greatest novel ever written, and who am I to argue — I loved it. The main characters are well-rounded and believable — I especially liked the man-about-town Oblonsky (he of the famous unhappy family which is unhappy in its own way) and the solid and thoughtful Levin (Tolstoy under another name).

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The Beat of the Pendulum — Catherine Chidgey

This experimental “found novel” is great. Once I got into it, it was like a beautifully edited minimalistic fly-on-the-wall documentary in print.

Every day for a year, Catherine Chidgey recorded or wrote down a conversation, email, overheard snippet, advertisement or some other piece of text. That’s what this book is. Initially it’s pretty disorienting as there’s only speech — no introductions, descriptions or even “he said” or “she said”. It takes a while to figure out who the characters are and what their relationships are. Even by the end of the book I was still losing track of who was talking during long conversations.

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Minna Needs Rehearsal Space — Dorthe Nors

This book is fun.
This book is short.
This whole book is a staccato list of sentences.
Like these.
It’s about a woman called Minna.
Minna needs rehearsal space.
Obviously.
But she is stymied by her boyfriend.
She is stymied by her sister.
She is stymied by her friends.
It’s harder than you think, getting a rehearsal space.

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The Mind-Body Problem — Rebecca Goldstein

If you don’t already know a lot about the history of philosophy, you will by the time you’ve finished this book. If you do, then you’ll recognise a lot of it. Like Goldstein’s more recent 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, this book is full of philosophy, Jewish culture and academia. But there’s also quite a lot of sex. Or at least lots of musing about sex. I find it pretty ingenious how Goldstein manages to incorporate so many concepts from philosophy explicitly into this story of a young woman academic’s love life. She explains the ideas succinctly either through the characters or direct to the reader, and makes them all relevant and apposite. This would actually be a great book to read as you embark on a course in philosophy. Continue reading
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