Archive for November, 2011

Maf the Dog gets a ‘ruff’ ride

Going to a book group, for me, has to mean starting off with an open mind and being prepared to give books a go that may not, at first, appeal. Sometimes your worst suspicions are confirmed – other times, they’re pleasantly confounded. This month’s choice, for me, was a case in point. I was deeply sceptical about the idea of a novel about early Sixties Hollywood told through the narrative voice of a dog. Until I reached round about Page Two of Andrew O’Hagan’s The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of his Friend Marilyn Monroe, by which time that narrative voice proved to be so engaging, funny and original that I was completely won over. It must be so tricky for a writer to approach such well-worn subjects as Marilyn Monroe or the Kennedys in a truly fresh way – and for me, this worked in an unexpectedly beautiful and compelling way.
What particularly worked well was the language – Maf, because of the knowledge built up, we presume, in his previous lives, is wise and philosophical most of the time, but then betrays his general doggyness by lapsing into comments about smells and good places to pee. The work is full of poetic language. Liver, says Maf, is “a zizz and a yarm and a rumph and a treat” ; Sinatra’s “neat row of teeth rhymed perfectly with the white line of handkerchief cresting the top pocket of his suit.” Maf is also full of surprises: dogs don’t like cats, he says, because of their preference for poetry over prose – and all the cats in the novel do indeed converse using poetry. For me, characterisation was a very strong point: Sinatra was portrayed as a frightening bully and Marilyn an ethereal, hard-to-reach creature rather like a blurry image from a film.
My love of the book has some strong support: Jill, who was around halfway through the novel, is enjoying its depth and wants to go back and re-read it more slowly, the better to take it in. She found it a book principally about art and loved the use of colour and the way Monroe as a ‘real’ person never truly existed, only her Hollywood construct. Anne L began with concerns that the work was pretentious, but then admired its cleverness, and found herself caring about what happened to Maf. She also found the character of Sinatra horrific, but well-drawn. Paula too, after wondering if the author was trying too hard to be clever, was drawn into the descriptive passages and the clever ending. She also found many connections with Virginia Woolf and her insecurities. Key scenes, such as those with Sinatra, were for her compelling.
This being Berwick, however, there was no consensus. Several readers did not finish the book. Helen, who likes to read about O’Hagan’s chosen era, was disappointed that the sense of the time and place did not, for her, come across well. She was also disappointed that the novel ended before Marilyn’s death (I felt the opposite about this!). Anne R couldn’t get into the book – although she found it witty in places, she became weary of the cleverness and did not care enough about any characters to continue with it. “There were things to admire, but not enough.”
Although Martin liked the notion of speaking animals, which he felt writers such as Terry Pratchett have done well, he did not enjoy or finish the O’Hagam novel: “It was like being trapped in a room with a show-off.” And Maisie said the novel sent her to sleep – she found it boring and that the writer was massaging his own ego. She was unable to find anything to like about it.
The conversation turned to what else we are reading. Rose was organised enough to bring in print-outs about the Booker shortlist, which was interesting, and some of those will end up on many of our ‘to-read’ lists. Martin recommended Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories, Maisie suggested Snowdrops by A.D. Miller and Jill is working her way through the fourth book in the Game of Thrones sci-fi series.
Next month should prove interesting too with a discussion on the late US writer Austin Wright’s complex and chilling Tony and Susan – and the novels are now in stock at Doolally’s.
Next meeting: Tuesday 6th December, 6.30pm at Doolally’s in Marygate, Berwick. Discussing Tony and Susan by Austin Wright.

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About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit www.newwritingnorth.com/submit/join-berwick-book-group.

November 2011
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