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May 19, 2011

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Well said. My single Roth was "The Human Stain". I felt sullied by the end ... and bored too. I suppose that's something not many writers would be able to emulate ...

I'm going to have to read one of his books to see if I agree!

What's good about Roth?

No idea. I read American Pastoral last year and it was agony – the blind ceaseless ranting of an angry old man with no time wasted on any interesting or believable plot or character.

Reading the many grotesquely elongated, repetitious paragraph-length sentences I found myself frequently shaking my head as if this was a trick or a mistake. Surely this couldn’t be the work of America’s Greatest Living Novelist?

I'm not sure who from the short-list should've won (I think Pullman and le Carré are both geniuses), but Roth is not half the writer that John Updike was or that E.L. Doctorow is.

Doesn't he write really dirty sex scenes?

I'm heading out now but I'll try to come back later and expand on why I (mostly) like Roth. Meanwhile a couple of reviews of his books from my blog might, or might not, go some way to explaining his appeal to me:

http://theasylum.wordpress.com/2007/12/19/philip-roth-the-anatomy-lesson/

http://theasylum.wordpress.com/2008/09/22/philip-roth-patrimony/

I won't direct you to any of my reviews as they're mostly of his recent work which I don't think makes the best case for him. Rick Gekoski, the chair of the Booker panel, said that one of the extraordinary things about Roth is that his first book Goodbye Columbus was genius as was his latest, Nemesis. How many writers he asked could manage to maintain that kind of writing quality over so many decades? In that time he has written books that appeal to many different types of readers and that's part of the appeal I think (and the reason why the going 'on and on and on about the same subject' criticism doesn't really hold up for me - but even if it did I can think of plenty of other great writers who could be accused of the same thing!) He can be funny, sharp, political, incisive, brutally honest, sexually explicit and most of all brave. His writing, even in books that you wouldn't think of as the best, is always high quality, well structured and filled with arresting passages.

The books that made me love him as a writer came in a bit of a purple streak. American Pastoral is a work of genius. A book that pierces to the heart of The American Dream and punctures it. A book of politics, violence and domestic battles it is primarily a book filled with the rage of a man who cannot satisfactorily connect with the women in his life (and anyone who knows anything of Roth's personal life cannot help but feel the power in that). I Married A Communist is a savage book on its own before you realise that it is a thinly veiled attack on his marriage to Clare Bloom. Some celebrities use the tabloids to settle their scores, Roth wrote a brilliant work of art! Sabbath's Theatre is a riotous, fearless carnival of expression, literally bursting at the seams with human exuberance. It's filthy, it's beautiful, it's unlike anything else you have read.

Scott, as a man particularly, I feel sure that you would find something in Roth to admire or even adore. Everyman is probably the worst place you could ever have started. If you want the serious side - read American Pastoral. If you want to be entertained - Sabbath's Theatre. They are both utterly brilliant.

There is an interesting debate going on about this subject at Twitter today. More than one person has pointed out that Everyman is not actually all that good, and certainly not his best work, and that it was a shame that I chose that as my starting point.

The thing is, the reviews of Everyman at the time suggested it was a masterpiece. The Times made it their pick of the week, the Observer called it 'capable of altering the way you see the world', the Independent said 'very sentence and every paragraph works with the coiled precision of the watch mechanisms that the narrators father repairs.'

So I read it. And it was dull.

Now, if Roth fans themselves do not think Everyman is as good as all that then why did the reviewers claim it was so wonderful? Is Roth an author who literary editors are wary of giving poor reviews to?

My current dislike of Roth may be more down to false expectations created by fawning reviewers than the author himself.

I've only read "The Human Stain". I loved it, but unfortuantely it was a long time ago and I can't remember a thing about it. I think the fact I've forgotten about it proves it wasn't genius, but it was entertaining at the time.

Stuart Evers has written a blog post today which is far better than my waffle above.

http://stuartevers.blogspot.com/2011/05/i-didnt-think-i-or-indeed-anyone-else.html

The Plot Against America is fantastic. A very clever reworking of a quite plausible alternative America that doesn't overplay the Jewishness of his characters, but users it to make interesting points, and tell a good story.

American Pastoral is a clever book but it does drag towards the end.

Private Eye's first drafts summed it up brilliantly with, "I'm Jewish. I don't really see any mileage in that, so, moving on…"

I can't bear Philip Roth. But never mind; people and books I don't like win prizes all the time. What I find astonishing is that Roth - or anyone - managed to win the International Booker when he only had the support of two out of the three judges. How on earth did that happen? What went on in those meetings? How could two judges completely ignore the wishes of the other judge like that? Did they lock her in a closet when they made the announcement?

I can't help but read some significance into the fact that the two pro-Roth judges were men and the one anti-Roth judge was a woman. One of my principal objections to Roth is that he's vehemently misogynistic. To be fair I've only read a couple of his books (The Human Stain and American Pastoral) but I can't say I'm reassured by William Rycroft's descriptions of his other books, and his assurance to Scott that "as a man particularly" he'd find plenty to enjoy in Roth. We don't ask black people to admire racist writers, so why is there this expectation that women should just suck up the misogyny in these so called great American novels?

Hi Marie. The reason why I said 'as a man' is because my experience in reading Roth was to finally have articulated some of my confusions about being 'a man', of relationships with women, fathers, mothers, of being 'right' but losing the argument anyway. My wife and I both read American Pastoral, both loved it, but both had entirely different readings of the book, and placed our sympathies in different areas. I don't think she mentioned misogyny though and her experience with other books of his was to almost always find the male characters pathetic rather than offensive in their inability to relate properly to women. Could it be that Roth rather than being a misogynist is actually highlighting the failings of his male protagonists, and himself?
I'd certainly be beware of pronouncing someone as vehemently misogynist after reading only two books. It's the default criticism that I hear him being accused of it all the time but seldom with any examples.

Like William, I am very wary of someone being described as a misogynist without any clear indication of why. Does Roth write books which are often from the point of view of men of his age and culture? Yes. Do the characters occasionally display the worst qualities of men in their relations to women? Yes. Does that make him or his books misogynist? No. Why would it?

In response to Marie's other point about disregarding the wishes of one judge, I think this highlights one of the weaknesses of the International Booker. They need more than three judges (though of course that could still result in a 3-2 verdict, which is not uncommon in the annual Booker Prize). It's clear from the judges' reports that Gekoski and Cartwright both thought Roth head and shoulders above any other candidate on the list. So the alternative, giving the award to someone else, would have meant disregarding the wishes of TWO judges. Hardly a better outcome.

It's tricky, the being misogynist / writing about misogyny thing. There are authors who manage it brilliantly - F Scott Fitzgerald, for example. But even Roth's biggest supporters have never trumpeted him as someone who writes with warmth about women. His recurring character Zuckerman is widely accepted as his alter ego in his novels, and therefore we can ascribe some of the sentiments expressed in his books as tallying to his real opinions. I can never read Roth as a man, but you can't read it is a woman, and so it's unlikely that your experience of reading the Human Stain is as mine was:

There are two major female characters. One is a young, beautiful, wild sex beast who finds our far older protagonist irresistible. She is also illiterate. (Or not. But for the bulk of the book she is put forward as such.) The other is a wizened up old crone, who believes herself to the the protagonist's intellectual equal, but isn't. But she's certainly spent a lot of time in academia when she would have been happier in her natural state - on her back with legs apart. Her lust for the protagonist - unrequited, because why would he want an intelligent intellectual woman when he could have a free spirited fuck-monster? - brings him down and also herself. Poor thing. Shouldn't have read all those books.

This is all coming out very angry - I'm not angry with you, William or John. I'm sure you're lovely and not remotely anti-woman. I really, really loathed The Human Stain and I found it truly, vehemently misogynistic. And I feel very threatened when I read a book which I think articulates a real hatred towards women and then I hear men say 'at last, a book that speaks for us!' I find it frightening, to be honest. It makes me feel like men hate me.

We are both lovely (aren't we John?) and not remotely anti-woman and you raise some very valid points about The Human Stain. I'm not the greatest fan of that novel and there is something distinctly Woody Allen about some of Roth's fictions. Old bloke is sexually irresistible to much younger woman who then becomes object of sexual exploration - some of those make me feel uncomfortable.

There's a little discussion about all this in the Observer today which suggests that Roth is certainly anti-feminist:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/may/22/philip-roth-carmen-callil-booker


I tried American Pastoral last year and was very disappointed. Only got about a fifth of the way in

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Books Read: 2014

  • Natsume Soseki: Kokoro

    Natsume Soseki: Kokoro
    Took a while to work for me but once I got into it I really enjoyed it. A Japanese novel from the early part of the last century. Reminded me of EM Forster in the way it presented restrained emotions. (****)

  • Ted Hughes: The Iron Man

    Ted Hughes: The Iron Man
    I was quite enjoying this until the space dragon turned up and then it all got a bit too silly. (***)

  • Leah Price: Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books

    Leah Price: Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books
    A bunch of authors answer questions about their book collections and allow their shelves to be photographed. Great book porn. (****)

  • Charles Bukowski: Pulp: A Novel

    Charles Bukowski: Pulp: A Novel
    His last book is a far-fetched private eye novel that is completely daft but good fun. (****)

  • George Saunders: Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness

    George Saunders: Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness
    A short speech about kindness Saunders gave to graduating students at Syracuse University. It is born of good intentions and has been turned into a very handsome little volume. Sweet but slight. (***)

  • Thomas Christopher Greene: The Headmaster's Wife

    Thomas Christopher Greene: The Headmaster's Wife
    Great story. Beautiful prose. Amazing twist. (****)

  • Matt Rudd: The English

    Matt Rudd: The English
    A very funny field guide to our (my) great countrymates. Great social commentary, manages to make serious points and subvert your expectations while making you laugh. (****)

  • Jack Standing: The Bug - Episode 1

    Jack Standing: The Bug - Episode 1
    First instalment of a horror novel being released in six parts for 77p each. A neat idea and, although horror is not a genre I bother with normally, I really enjoyed this. Would make a great TV drama. (****)

  • Barry Webb: A Book About a Matchbox

    Barry Webb: A Book About a Matchbox
    At times this was brilliant. At times this was frustrating and in need of a jolly good edit. A novel about a sentient matchbox and the lives of the people who own it. A bold experiment that almost comes off. (***)

  • Danny Rhodes: Fan

    Danny Rhodes: Fan
    A novel about the Hillsborough disaster, or rather its aftermath. A Nottingham Forest fan who has moved down south finds himself reliving that awful day when, years later, he receives news of two deaths back home. Rhodes holds nothing back. This is an important and unforgettable book. (****)

  • Julian Barnes: Levels of Life

    Julian Barnes: Levels of Life
    A study of grief. I confess I did have uncharitable thoughts that he was dwelling rather too much and I preferred the earlier portions of the book which are all about the early pioneers of ballooning. (***)

  • Nik Perring: Beautiful Words: Some Meanings and Some Fictions Too

    Nik Perring: Beautiful Words: Some Meanings and Some Fictions Too
    An alphabet book for grown-ups with just the hint of a story across its pages. Clever stuff. Quite charming. (****)

  • Malcolm Lowry: Ultramarine

    Malcolm Lowry: Ultramarine
    A posh bloke tries to write about working men and doesn't really pull it off. Somewhat tedious with just occasional flashes of quality. (**)

  • Richard Hughes: In Hazard

    Richard Hughes: In Hazard
    Written just before the outbreak of WW2 this story of a steamer caught in a hurricane is a real thriller and, dare I say it, a bit of a lost classic. (****)

  • Kent Haruf: The Tie that Binds

    Kent Haruf: The Tie that Binds
    His first novel, and the only one I hadn't got round to reading. Definite signs of the genius that was to come. Not quite as spare and economical as his very best work but still quite marvelous. (****)

  • Lucy Inglis: Georgian London: Into the Streets

    Lucy Inglis: Georgian London: Into the Streets
    A wonderful history which really brings to life the inhabitants of 18th century London to life. (****)

  • Éric Faye: Nagasaki

    Éric Faye: Nagasaki
    A middle-aged Japanese man becomes convinced someone is sneaking into his house and drinking his orange juice, among other things. A real little gem of a book. I finished it in one sitting. (****)

  • Igort Tuveri: 5 Is The Perfect Number

    Igort Tuveri: 5 Is The Perfect Number
    Some great images in this graphic novel about a retired mafioso who returns to the game following the death of his son but the writing isn't really of the same quality. (***)

  • Osamu Dazai: Schoolgirl

    Osamu Dazai: Schoolgirl
    Japanese post-war existential novella that, I am guessing, has a bit more impact in its original language. Interesting but slight, and lacks any real clout. (***)

  • Junichiro Tanizaki: In Praise Of Shadows

    Junichiro Tanizaki: In Praise Of Shadows
    An essay on aesthetics from the author of The Makioka Sisters. Some interesting passages and he makes a considered argument against electric light and the way it ruins the look of things. Mind you, this was written in 1933. (***)

  • Ben Watt: Romany and Tom

    Ben Watt: Romany and Tom
    A memoir of his parents. Contains some beautiful writing. (****)

  • Cynan Jones: The Dig

    Cynan Jones: The Dig
    Short, intense novel about a farmer trying to get through lambing season and a badger baiter attempting to evade the law. Told in short poetic bursts. Some wonderful lines in this. I read it in one sitting. (****)

  • Magnus Mills: Three to See the King

    Magnus Mills: Three to See the King
    A wonky, wonderful parable. As if The Woman in the Dunes had been rewritten by The League of Gentlemen. (****)

  • Alejandro Zambra: The Private Lives of Trees

    Alejandro Zambra: The Private Lives of Trees
    An interesting novella from Chile. First half is better than the second half. (***)

  • Charles Lambert: The View from the Tower

    Charles Lambert: The View from the Tower
    Published by Exhibit A books, a specialist crime imprint, but not perhaps the sort of crime novel you'd expect. Romantic and political intrigue in a troubled Italy. (****)

  • Banana Yoshimoto: Lake, The

    Banana Yoshimoto: Lake, The
    As I find with most of her books, this is enjoyable but slight. (***)

  • Diogo Mainardi: The Fall

    Diogo Mainardi: The Fall
    An unusual, experimental memoir. A father writing about his son who has cerebral palsy. He does so in 424 numbered paragraphs, many of which go off on tangents but all seem to find their way back to the subject somehow. Clever without showing off. Moving without being sentimental. (****)

  • Joan Lindsay: Picnic at Hanging Rock

    Joan Lindsay: Picnic at Hanging Rock
    A dark and haunting modern classic. A real shame that the author didn't write any more novels. (****)

  • Wesley Stace: Misfortune

    Wesley Stace: Misfortune
    Oh I loved this. A foundling baby boy is raised as a girl by an eccentric lord in this tale of family secrets, incest, libraries, ballads, forgotten poets, hermaphrodites and sweet revenge. Imagine Middlesex crossed with Crimson Petal and the White. (*****)

  • Heðin Brú: The Old Man and His Sons

    Heðin Brú: The Old Man and His Sons
    A classic novel from the Faroe Islands. An old man gets drunk and bids too much for a load of whale meat. Most of the book is him trying to raise the funds to pay the impending bill. A black comedy. (****)

  • Sophocles (Translated by David Grene): Oedipus the King

    Sophocles (Translated by David Grene): Oedipus the King
    This is the translation I read for A-level. Brought back memories. The centre of the play, when the secret is revealed, remains incredibly powerful. (****)

  • Natalie Haynes: The Amber Fury

    Natalie Haynes: The Amber Fury
    A teacher in a school for expelled pupils wins over the older kids with some Greek classics but then, after all, these are the Greek classics so it is unlikely to end well. A promising debut novel which inspired me to re-read some Sophocles and Euripides. (****)

  • Ingrid Winterbach: The Book of Happenstance

    Ingrid Winterbach: The Book of Happenstance
    A lexicographer is working on a dictionary of lost Afrikaans words when she is distracted by the loss of something closer to home: her collection of rare shells. An unusual novel which deserves a wide audience. (****)

  • John Banville: The Sea

    John Banville: The Sea
    I tried, I really did, but most of this just washed over me (pun noted but not intended). Interesting in places but ultimately a bit dull. (***)

  • Robertson Davies: The Lyre of Orpheus

    Robertson Davies: The Lyre of Orpheus
    The final part of the Cornish trilogy. Perhaps not quite as joyously entertaining as the first two but still marvelous in its own way. (****)

  • Barbara Graziosi: The Gods of Olympus: A History

    Barbara Graziosi: The Gods of Olympus: A History
    Charts the history of the Greek gods from their origins through to the present day. Informative and entertaining. (****)

  • Roberto Bolano: Monsieur Pain

    Roberto Bolano: Monsieur Pain
    Short Kafka-esque romp which becomes somewhat vague and rambling in the second half. Started well, and promised much, but didn't quite deliver. (***)

  • Stephen Grosz: The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves

    Stephen Grosz: The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves
    A collection of stories from the psychoanalyst's couch. It was interesting to take this peek into other people's lives (and minds) but it did get a tad repetitive by the end and the lack of any real resolution in most cases left me feeling short changed. (***)

  • Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch

    Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch
    This is good, very good in places, but I had some issues with it. Also, it is 250 pages too long. (****)

  • Lawrence Wright: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

    Lawrence Wright: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
    A study/expose of the Scientology 'religion'. I think it tries to be even handed but it is hard when the founder is quite clearly a con-artist and the beliefs are so fucking daft. Mind you, not much different to all the other religions out there. An absolutely riveting read. (****)

  • Charlie Hill: Books

    Charlie Hill: Books
    Patchy, and sometimes very silly, satire of the book world but I couldn't help but enjoy it immensely. (****)

  • Plato (translated by Walter Hamilton): The Symposium

    Plato (translated by Walter Hamilton): The Symposium
    A bunch of Greek blokes, nursing hangovers from the night before, decide not to get pissed and chat about love instead. Quite sweet really. Nice accessible translation too. (****)

  • Ray Robinson: Jawbone Lake

    Ray Robinson: Jawbone Lake
    Robinson seems to reinvent himself with each book. This time he has written an exemplary literary thriller. The clever bastard. (****)

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  • Trick Mammoth -

    Trick Mammoth: Floristry
    Velocity Girl meets The Go-Betweens. Playing this a lot at the moment. Especially when the sun is out. (****)

Quick Flicks

Big Mouth at the Movies

  • : The Queen of Versailles

    The Queen of Versailles
    What starts off as a documentary about excess and the fact that money can't buy taste becomes something quite different. (****)

  • : The Grand Budapest Hotel

    The Grand Budapest Hotel
    I find quite a lot of Wes Anderson's films to be style and silliness over substance (see a couple of entries down) but this was simply glorious and Ralph Fiennes hilarious. (*****)

  • : Blue Jasmine

    Blue Jasmine
    Sort of OK. The acting was a bit too obvious and mannered for my liking and the script a bit lightweight. Not bad but not great. (***)

  • : The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

    The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
    Most Wes Anderson films are more silly than interesting and this is definitely one of those. Enjoyable, but daft. (***)

  • : Computer Chess

    Computer Chess
    Trippy comedy set during a computer chess tournament in the early 80s. Not entirely successful but captures the era brilliantly. (***)

  • : Lady Vengeance

    Lady Vengeance
    A bit confused and definitely the least rewarding of the revenge trilogy. Has its moments though. (***)

  • : Oldboy

    Oldboy
    Second time I have seen this. It loses none of its impact really. A real classic. (*****)

  • : Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance

    Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance
    Relentlessly grim but brilliantly realised revenge drama from Korea. (****)

  • : The Lego Movie

    The Lego Movie
    Not actually as good as I was led to believe although certainly better than most animated kids movies. (***)

  • : Harvey

    Harvey
    Beautifully written and acted. A proper delight to watch it again. (*****)

  • : Sightseers

    Sightseers
    Very dark. Very funny. (****)

  • : Somersault

    Somersault
    Australian indie film from a decade ago. Spellbinding central performance from Abbie Cornish. Well worth seeking out. (****)

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