Saturday, 13 September 2014

How Long is a Good Book? The Year in Books: September


I've been delaying this month's Year in Books post in the hope that I would manage to finish my August read, 'The Goldfinch'.  I'm now admitting defeat - there are still over 300 of the 771 pages to go.  Yes I'm enjoying it and I will finish it: the first section was really good.  Others have said it was unputdownable and at this stage I tended to agree.  It's another book with a young male first person narrator - the fourth of this kind in a row for me, by accident rather than design.  As a 13 year old, the boy's life is shattered when his mother is killed in a terrorist bombing of a New York gallery they are visiting.  Donna Tartt's description of this is really vivid and her characterisation superb - I have a full picture of the world she created in my mind.  He tries to help another injured victim, a character called Welty, who he had noticed with his granddaughter just before the explosion.  He dies but not before telling the boy to take the painting of 'The Goldfinch', which his mother loved, out of the gallery.  This is the central plot device and the reader looks forward to seeing what the boy does with the painting - you suspect that he will hang onto it as the book begins with him hiding from police in Amsterdam for an undisclosed crime.  But then she kind of wraps the painting up for a bit, just like her character does, and digresses: he moves to Las Vegas to live with his father, meets Boris, another fascinating character and they grow up drinking, discovering girls, drugs etc.  All very well written, though rather too much vomiting for my taste,  and again she draws you into this desert and sun and casino world.  But there is, frustratingly, no plot advancement.  Then his father dies in a car accident and he's back in New York, at first as a teenager and then as an adult in the part I'm currently reading I'm starting to lose sympathy with him now, always a problem if you have a first person narrator, and I want the real story to start.  I checked out what others on The Year in Books thought and Lifechimes seems to agree.

Basically this book is just too long.  I caught the end of an interview with Ian McEwan on the radio a week or so ago and he was discussing this   He says that "very few really long novels earn their length", and "my fingers are always twitching for a blue pencil".  I tend to agree.  Yet short books are not to my taste either.  I found McEwan's Booker prize nominated 'novella', 'On Chesil Beach' disappointingly brief.  He says that he likes the idea of a book that you can read at one sitting, like his latest 'The Children Act'. (A man's comment - few women of my acquaintance have the luxury of reading even a 203 page book in one go.)  It sounded good when I caught a bit of it Book At Bedtime but I won't be buying it.  Not enough reader satisfaction for the £6.45 it costs on Kindle.

And so to answer my own question.  For me a good book is usually at least 300 and no more than 500 words long.   Just like my other August book which I did finish: Hardy's 'Far from the Madding Crowd' (469 pages), first read with Mrs Neill at the Rainey Endowed school in 1974/5 for my O Level English Literature.  I haven't read it since and  I really enjoyed it.  Hardy may digress into descriptions of rural Dorset but he never forgets to keep the plot going for the reader.  Like Donna Tartt, he has that skill of drawing you into his world so that you live it for a while. 

I also think everyone should read this book before choosing a life partner. Listen to these wise words at the end of the novel. 
'
They spoke very little of their mutual feeling; pretty phrases and warm expressions being probably un- necessary between such tried friends. Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other's character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good-fellowship — CAMARADERIE — usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death — that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.'

 Hoping I can persuade my daughter to read it so that she's not taken in by some Troylike flashy scoundrel in a red jacket showing off his fancy sword work. Or its modern equivalent.

So in September for the Year in Books, I won't be too ambitious. I will finish 'The Goldfinch' along with a couple of non-fiction library loans pictured below. Joining again with Laura at Circle of Pine Trees.




17 comments:

  1. I enjoyed The Goldfinch, but thought it was too long. I got a bit tired of the main character, and his inability to make decisions! Although I know loss can debilitate. Can I recommend 'The Shock Of The Fall,' my August read? It, too, deals with loss and mental health. I cried at some of the heart wrenching lines, and was rooting for the main character right from the start.
    I love Thomas Hardy. His poetry is where he ramps up the maudlin and the guilt. He can be self indulgent, but I agree that he draws you into his world.
    Leanne xx

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    1. Thanks - your recommendation is spot on. I've already read 'The Shock of the Fall' and loved it. Yes Theo is a bit Hamlet in his indecisiveness

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  2. Haven't read The Goldfinch and I probably wouldn't embark on it because of its length! Most of my work at school involves pupils on the autism spectrum so when my husband heard The Reason I Jump on Radio 4's book of the week last summer he made me read it. It's a great insight and I think that on this one I agree with Ian McEwan - you could almost read it in one sitting! It'll be a good antidote to the length of The Goldfinch!

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    1. I've read it already- very good. Your work sounds interesting. I teach qiuite a few kids with dyslexia and am becoming increasingly interested in how their brains seem to be wired differently.

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  3. I too found the Goldfinch too long, particularly the second half. I don't know if it is because I got a bit bored with main character or if it the latter part of the story was less well told. I did sometimes feel like shouting out to Theo "oh come-on, get on with it"... Boris made my skin crawl, even the teenage Boris. I generally like long books but prefer those being read to me. Cx

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    1. Just got to the bit where Boris is back. Now picking up a bit again I suppose.

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  4. Haven't read The Goldfinch, but am a great lover of both Hardy's prose and poetry. Jude the Obscure made an immense impression on me when I read it years ago. xxx

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  5. I love Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd. Had to read it at school but have read it several times since.

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  6. I loved Donna Tartts other books, but I'm not sure whether to read this one. I studied Far from the Madding Crowd for my O level. Probably due for a re read

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  7. Not really a Donna Tartt fan and not a fan of overly-long books, with The Goldfinch seems to be. I quite like the idea of the story, but don't know if I would have the patience to read it... so many books, so little time and all that. Maybe if I find a 50p copy I'll give it a go!

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  8. I really loved the first third of The Goldfinch but I think the next two-thirds could have done with a good edit. The Examined Life is the opposite in that's a collection of really short essays and of course non-fiction. I enjoyed it very much. ganching.

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    1. It was actually your book list which led me to The Examined Life. I've read a few essays already - easily distracted and happy to read several books at once. Enjoying it. Agreed on 'The Goldfinch'.

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  9. I'm still undecided about reading The Goldfinch. I'm put off by the length of it especially when others have commented about the flabby middle bit. If I see it in the library I might pick it up. I don't think I've ever given so much thought as to whether or not to read a particular book.

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  10. I wouldn't bother. There are so many better books to choose from.

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  11. for my O level it was "Return of the Native' ... sigh.

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  12. I really enjoyed the Reason I Jump. Such an insight into a condition that usually blocks communication. It really opened my eyes to autism.

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  13. The more I read about the Goldfinch the more I left wondering whether to bother...........especially as there is a long list of people who have reserved it at my local library!

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