Sunday, 7 October 2018

THE KINGDOM by Emmanuel Carrere

On the back of this book, one of its critics describes it as: "Lives of the Saints retold by Karl Ove Knausgaard." My initial thought was: what?  

However this is in fact a pretty good description.  THE KINGDOM is a truly bizarre mash-up of personal memoir, history of the early Church, and meditation on the meaning of religion.  I am sure I have never read anything like it, and I have learnt a lot from it.  For example, I learnt about the insanity of the Emperor Nero, and that by the time of the Roman Empire Athens was "already a museum," and that the author is really into porn about women masturbating, particularly a video called "brunette masturbates and has 2 orgasms."

Yes, it's a strange one.  Carrere tells you a lot about his life.  Not just the mundane (as per the above: "Saying that evenings are quiet in a mountain village in the Valais region is an understatement, and I dedicate some - in fact almost all - of them to watching pornography on the Internet."); but also the wonderful - in his brief but intense period of Christian belief, which took him by really quite unwelcome surprise.  However what I most enjoyed I think was learning about the early days of Christianity.  Really, it is quite incredible, that an idea that took off among a bunch of impoverished fishermen so quickly took over the Roman world.  I've often found that really strange, and it is interesting to see how it happened.  

For example, he tells us about one of the first pagan sources on the Christians, a letter from Pliny the Younger, who had become governor of some region:
Pliny discovers that the civic religion is in decline, the temples are empty, no one at the marketplace wants to buy meat that's been sacrificed to the gods, and from what he's gathered, the principal reason for this . . . is the success of a sect he's never heard of before: the disciples of Christus.  They get to together in secret.  Pliny's chief of staff thinks it's to have group sex.  . . . (Pliny) makes inquiries, sends someone, and the results of his investigations are disconcerting.  When they get together, these people limit themselves to sharing a frugal meal, smiling, and singing hymns.  So much mildness is worrying.  Pliny would have preferred debauchery, but he has to face the facts: no one's sleeping with anyone.

It's amazing, really.  The power of ideas to change the world is something really remarkable. 

I also learnt a lot about other philosophies in competition with Christianity at that time.  Enjoy this as a last snippet, which should make you think twice about our own capitalist world:

Whether Epicureans or Stoics, all the wise men taught that fortune is changing, unpredictable, and that we must be ready to lose all we have without a murmur.  None of them, however, would have recommended or even entertained the idea of getting rid of it on purpose.  They all considered what they called otium - that is, leisure and the free use of one's time - to be an absolute condition of human accomplishment.  Seneca, one of Paul's most famous contemporaries, says something quite nice on that topic: if by some mischance he were reduced to working for a living, no big deal; he'd just kill himself.

After reading this book, I realised I've read another book by this same author: THE ADVERSARY.  Memoir? History?  No, it's a straightforward piece of true crime.  This author is truly kooky. It gives me hope for the world of publishing. 

Sunday, 30 September 2018

SYLVESTER by Georgette Heyer

Yes I read another one.  I should have been reading 'modern classic' THE KINGDOM by Emmanuel Carrere, but honestly, what can you do?  Sometimes you just want to read trashy fun. 

REGENCY BUCK by Georgette Heyer

It is possible to buy Georgette Heyer books on Amazon, but this is not the right and proper place to buy them.  This one I bought in a dusty second hand book store.  Amazing.  It was even rainy at the time.  Wonderful.  I only went into the store to dry off my coat.  Ideal.  For bonus points, it was in the old Regency town of Lyme Regis (bonus points for you if you know what major Regency novel this town features in). 

Also note the edition.  Of late there has been an effort to republish Heyer with tasteful covers and quotes from respectable authors.  I don't begrudge this effort on the part of her estate to make money, but this is frankly not the right and proper way to read them.  You need old editions, with cover designs that just drip with contempt for the imagined female reader.  You also need a dusty, dodgy smell.  Suffice to say, this edition met these standards and then some. 

I used to read Heyer a lot as a teenager, but I only restarted in the last year or so.  I read this curled up in a bed in on holiday while it rained.  I won't bother to tell you what it's about, they're always about the same thing.  This  is not why you are reading it.  It's because when you look up at the end of the book, your afternoon has disappeared, and the rain has cleared. 

Sunday, 23 September 2018

NORMAL PEOPLE by Sally Rooney

I liked Rooney's first book CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS so much that after I finished reading it Ire-read it immediately  I don't like this one, her second, quite as much. That said, I started reading it at 11pm and then somehow forgot to stop.  I can't remember the last time I read a book in a single sitting, especially overnight.  So when I say I didn't like it quite as much, this is more a compliment to CONVERSATIONS than a commentary on NORMAL PEOPLE.

NORMAL PEOPLE tells the story of Marianne and Connell. They meet in high school, where she is wealthy but not popular, and he is the reverse.  He gets to know her because his mum is her mum's cleaner.  They start having sex, but he insists on keeping it secret, and eventually invites a girl who is always rather horrible to Marianne to the school dance.  Marianne does not take this well.  It sounds like the kind of drama that can happen in high school which is easy for adults to dismiss, but in this telling it is horrible and affecting, much like it is when this kind of thing actually happens to you in high school.  The pair split up and then meet again in college, and their relationship is off and on again over a number of years.  

There is a not very successful sub-plot about Marianne's abuse at the hands of her mother, much like the not very successful 'self harm' sub-plot in CONVERSATIONS.  I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that perhaps the author feels like we need some kind of damage to get us to care about a character.  The end also is not so very successful for me - it wants to be a happy ending, but somehow Rooney can't quite let it be. Whatever, these have got to be minor caveats because the fact remains I stayed up till 3am on it.  To tell you the truth, I was shocked when I looked at the clock, amazed that it had been four hours instead of five minutes.  

What I find particularly joyful about it I think is that Rooney is a young (twenty six!) and the book feels like a young person's book; and yet it is at the same time delightfully Victorian.  Unlike much modern writing, which feels itself superior to such boring antiques as plot, or character, here is a writer who clearly loves a narrative.  She describes for example how agitated Connell feels when he has to stop reading Austen's EMMA, and comments:
It feels intellectually unserious to concern himself with fictional people marrying each other. But there it is: literature moves him. One of his professors calls it the pleasure of being touched by great art.

Undoubtedly a pleasure I had from this book

EMPIRE FALLS by Richard Russo

This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002.  It's readable and engaging, but for a book that is not in fact that old it seems very elderly.  It is a straightforward slice of life of a divorced man in a small town, and is full of guilt about his mother, and a bitter ex-wife, and his love for his daughter and etc etc.  I didn't dislike it that much while reading it, but I guess in retrospect I sort of did.  It was a good display of a sort kind of narrative, but to my mind not much beyond that.  I didn't feel there was much new about it, in terms of ideas, or characters, or setting.  I wasn't sure what the point was, really.

I will make this minor sidepoint.  The author clearly thinks women in their forties are past it, and know themselves to be so, which is weird, and contributes to the dated feel not a little.  It reminded me of SEX AND THE CITY, which I caught on TV the other day.  There is a lot of emphasis about how if you are not married by thirty you are on the shelf, which seems laughable today.  I'm so glad I wasn't born any earlier. 

Sunday, 9 September 2018

A SORT OF LIFE by Graham Greene

I am not quite sure why it is I like Graham Greene's novels so much.  If his novels are described - all tortured men in the mid-twentieth century - they don't sound like something I'm going to really enjoy.  Yet I  really do like them, almost more than I want to.  They're drenched, all of them, in guilt and regret.  This doesn't sound very appealing, I know, but somehow I always find them very consoling. There's some absence of judgement them, some generosity: like life's so incredibly hard, he's proud of you for just getting through it.  It's soothing. 

A SORT OF LIFE is the first installment of his autobiography, and tells the story of his own life up to his thirties or so. It made me understand him a little better.  First, for a man whose books feel so modern to me, in being so equivocal and undecided, he is older than I thought.  He was born 1905, and has a childhood of illnesses - measles (twice), pleurisy, appendicitis, etc: you wonder what his parents were doing, and then remember how very modern a miracle vaccination is.

He's miserable in school, and tells us how he used to play Russian Roulette with his brothers gun; how he cut himself; how he went to the dentist once and had a perfectly fine tooth removed just for the escape of the ether.  What's striking about all this is not so much the misery, but the way in which he tells us about it, pretty casually, and with no reference to how he obviously badly needs a ton of therapy.  I guess he lived  in that generation that saw both World Wars, and I can see from that perspective how you might need to do a little more than fool around with a gun before he thinks you have a real problem.

He's happier when he goes to university at Oxford, but then he has to leave.  He captures well a sentiment I think many people feel, but I have never seen written down so clearly:
Perhaps, until one starts, at the age of seventy, to live on borrowed time, no year will seem again quite so ominous as the one when formal education ends and the moment arrives for the whole future.
He finds employment at a newspaper, and then his first book is a success.  This is the beginning of failure, as he tells us in his cheery fashion; he quits his day job on the back of that first success, and thereafter writes two flops in a row.  He converts to Catholicism, and is much happier; but your heart breaks for him:  
The first general confession, which precedes conditional baptism, and which covers the whole of a man’s previous life, is a humiliating ordeal. Later we may become hardened in the formulas of confession and skeptical about ourselves: we may only half intend to keep the promises we make, until continual failure or the circumstances of our private life finally make it impossible to make any promises at all and many of us abandon confession and communion to join the Foreign Legion of the Church and fight for a city of which we are no longer full citizens. But in the first confession a convert really believes in his own promises. 
That 'circumstances of our private life' is very interesting.  He's married by now, and manages somehow to write a very personal memoir without telling us a thing about his wife.  This is however exactly what I am gagging to know all about, as his novels are all about bad marriages and affairs that you regret.  You just know that's super juicy and that's why he's not telling you a thing about it.

I wouldn't like you to think the whole thing is glum. There is lots to delight. He tells us about his dogs - his "Pekinese, passionate about dustbins;" about his fun in Sierra Leone - "I remember a glorious day in Freetown in 1942 when I closed the windows of my little office and slaughtered more than three hundred flies in a timed four minutes."  And of course the prose is lovely and lucid.  Try this fabulous description of a bar, also in Freetown, but to be found all over the world:
Like the bar of the City Hotel in Freetown which I was to know years later it was the focal point of failure, a place undisturbed by ambition, a place to be resigned to, a home from home.
One interesting point about Greene was that he lived in Clapham, where I live now, and I go past his house with its blue plaque very often.  I also spent quite some time in Sierra Leone, as did he.  I imagine the Venn diagram of those who've lived off the Common and in Salone also is fairly small, and I am privileged to share it with him.  I'm definitely going to order the next installment.

STANDARD DEVIATION by Katherine Heiny

If there is one thing you can usually rely on commercial fiction for, it is a plot.  In exchange for this, you get some schmaltz and lazy thinking.  Sometimes you waver and think, oh well, let's read this, at least it will be entertaining.  Thus, my impulse purchase of STANDARD DEVIATION, whose cover quote from Nigella Lawson told me everything I needed to know about it's level of ambition.

Unfortunately, STANDARD DEVATION is not like most commercial fiction.  Sentimentality, this it has.  Predictable self-discovery, yes.  Characters working too hard at being charming, yes.  Special needs children, definitely.   But narrative forward progress, no.

It was cynical and dull in equal measure.  Serves me right for deciding to waste my short life reading what I knew to be rubbish.

Friday, 7 September 2018

GOODBYE VITAMIN by Rachel Khong

I was okay with this book.  It is about a 30 year old who returns to look after her father who is ill as her own life is falling apart.  It's sweet and comic, despite the relatively dark subject matter, and other reviewers have liked it, but for me it was a bit meh.  

I think it was hurt  by the fact that I read it immediately after Andrew Sean Greer's Pulitzer-winning LESS, which is in many ways quite similar but somehow much, much better.  It's like how you would be impressed by a skater scoring 8 until you see the skater scoring 10.  

And there are some true 10/10 lines.  Try this, on her ex-boyfriend, who left her for someone else, someone he then more or less immediately married: "You know what else is unfair, about Joel? That I loosened the jar lid, so somebody else could open him up.” 

No disrespect then to Rachel Khong: it's hard to get a first novel published, and harder to get it reviewed well in the New York Times.  Winning the Pulitzer can happen next.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

TALENTED MR RIPLEY by Patricia Highsmith

I read this book on a first generation Kindle in a tent in Yellowstone.  It is absorbing enough to help me forget the cold and the mysterious interior condensation.  It's  a lot gayer than the movie, as far as I remember.  Written in 1955, it remains shockingly sharp and contemporary feeling.  It also very much checks its morality at the door; I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was so judgment free. It tells the story of a man who murders his way into a substantial fortune, and gets away with it.

It manages the difficult trick of making you root for the sociopath, not least because the victims are all people who inherited their money.  It's hard to feel they deserve the money, so you don't care when they lose it.  At least they don't deserve it anywhere near as much as the sociopath, who is at least willing to kill for it.  The best part is that not only does he not get caught, he doesn't suffer any guilt over what he's done either.  A model for all of us.

Bonus important author biographical information:  Apparently Patricia Highsmith was a miserable misanthrope, who once bought a head of lettuce with a hundred snails on it in her handbag to a cocktail party, saying they were her companions for the evening.  Amazing. 

LESS by Andrew Sean Greer


It's not every day a book gets passionately recommended in the Whatsapp group of my high school friends.  But then LESS is not an everyday book.  Sometimes books just deserve to win all this prizes.  This is one, and it has.  Or at least the Pulitzer, which is all you need.  It's a coming of age story, and the age that's coming is middle age. 

It tells the story of Arthur Less, a writer who is approaching a difficult round-number birthday, and is working to get over the end of his relationship with a much younger man.  

The story is sweet, and sad, and very funny.  Arthur is a lovely creation  - on the phone ("frenetically dialing like a man decoding a bomb"); leaving a cab ("fumbling the tip and leaping out as from a hostage situation"); letting his mind wonder during a talk (" . . . feels his mind drifting away like a spaceman from an airlock, off into the asteroid belt of his own concerns.")  But everything in the book is beautifully conceived.  Here, randomly, camels:
What does the camel love?  I would guess nothing in the world.  Not the sane that scours her, or the sun that bakes her, or the water she drinks like a teetotaller.  Not sitting down, blinking her lashes like a starlet.  Not standing up, moaning in indignant fury as she manages her adolescent limbs.  Not her fellow camels, to whom she shows the disdain of an heiress forced to fly coach.  Not the humans who have enslaved her.  Not the oceanic monotony of the dunes.  No the flavourless grass she chews, then chews again, in a sullen struggle of digestion.  Not the hellish day.  Not the heavenly night.  Not sunset. Not sunrise. Not the sun or the moon or the stars.  And surely not the heavy American, a few pounds overweight but not bad for his age . . . 
It's not just funny though, but also wise.  Silly situations tend lyrical. Here for example is Arthur in the airport, frustrated that once again he has failed to get back his VAT despite having filled out all the forms:
How awful for the string of inequities to be brought out in his mind, that useless rosary, so he can finger again those memories; the toy phone his sister received while he got nothing, the B in chemistry because his exam handwriting was poor, the idiot rich kid who got into Yale instead of him,the men who chose hustlers and fools over innocent Less, all the way up to his publisher's polite refusal of his latest novel and his exclusion from any list of best writers under thirty, under forty, under fifty—they make no lists above that.  The regret of Robert.  The agony of Freddy.  His brain sits before its cash register again, charging him for old shames as if he has not paid before.  He tries but cannot let it go.  It is not the money, he tells himself, but the principle.  He has don’t everything right, and they have conned him once again.  It is not the money.  And then, after he passes Vuitton, Prada, and clothing brands based on various liquors and cigarettes, he admits it to himself at last: It is indeed, the money. 

SPOILER ALERT It ends happily, in a way that involves the much younger man.  I don't think I could have handled it for it to end in any other way.  You can always tell I like a book when my blog post is nothing  but extracts.  Let's end with him with the much younger man:

He kisses – how do I explain it?  Like someone in love.  Like he has nothing to lose.  Like someone who has just learned a foreign language and can only use the present tense and only the second person.  Only now, only you.






Sunday, 5 August 2018

A SPORT AND A PASTIME by James Salter

I don't want to be the sort of person who is so woke they can't enjoy a great book.  Thus, I feel rather guilty to say I could not enjoy this beautifully written novel as much as I wanted to because YOU JUST DON'T ENCOURAGE TEENAGE GIRLS TO RELY ON THE RHYTHM METHOD.  That it is the 1960s is no excuse, especially when you are a thiry year old man with family money and she is an eighteen year old shop girl from a small town.

That said, I do understand why it is considered a modern classic, and it does include the second most poetic description of anal sex I've ever read.  (You will learn more than you want to about the first when I get round to THE LESSER BOHEMIANS by Eimar McBride).   Here is a taste, but just a small one as this is a family blog:  
In the morning it is calm.  He awakens as if a fever has passed.  Europe has returned to its real proportions.  The immortal cities swim in sunlight.  The great rivers flow.  His prick is large and her hand moves to it as soon as her eyes open.  He searches his clothing for the crumpled, leaden tube.  He hands it to her.  She looks at him impassively.  He kicks the covers away as she unscrews the cap.  She begins to spread it on.  The coolness makes him jump.  Afterwards she rolls over and in the full daylight he slowly inserts his gleaming declaration.  
One of the stranger and more wonderful things about this blog is that it is written not from the perspective of the main couple, whose love story this is, but from that of his friend, and as he assures us: "I am not telling the truth about Dean.  I am creating him out of my own inadequacies, you must always remember that.” It's thus less a story of something that happened and more a story of someone's painful imaginings of other people's lives.  This makes it a more complicated book than it at first seems.  For example, here they are in a car.  
In the great car that exists for me in dreams, like the Flying Dutchman, like Roland's horn, that ghosts along the empty roads of France, its headlights faded, its elegance a little shabby; in that blue Delage with doors that open backwards, deep in the seats they drive towards home.  The villages are fading, the rivers turning dark.  She undoes his clothing and brings forth his prick, erect, pale as a heron in the dusk, both of them looking ahead at the road like any couple.  
I just chose that snippet specifically for the heron bit of course.  There are so many beautifully observed bits, and such carefully constructed sentences, there was almost too much to admire in this book. There is just such an impressive amount of work in it it almost got hard to read; I imagine Salter at his desk for years, to come up with these 200 pages.  Here he is on seeing some people on a deserted street on a Sunday
Unexpectedly, like a band of survivors, there is a crowd, all decently dressed, just leaving church.
Or on a train:
There's a comfortable feeling of delivering myself into the care of those who run these great, somnolent trains, through the clear glass of which people are staring, drained, as quiet as invalids.
And yet somehow I can't say I enjoyed this book.  It was just so creepy, his clear plan to ditch her, and to definitely ditch her as soon as she got pregnant.  His not using contraception (though he clearly tells her, when she asks, that it is available in America), and her calm because 'eight days before and eight days after' you are fine makes your skin crawl.  The story is detailed and observant when it is about the narrator, and his sexual inadequacies, and about the man, with all his sexual super-abundance, but when it is about the girl - "good-looking, not too intelligent perhaps" - as he casually describes her - all that ends abruptly.   I'm trying to get past it, but it's hard.  I'll do it though. If you ruled out all the books where women were objects you could hardly read the canon, and I don't care enough about my gender to give up the world's great books.  

Saturday, 28 July 2018

HOW TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee

From the very first lines this book is like: BOOM.  
Really, great books are a miracle.  They have such a sense of inevitability about them - as if they had to exist, and exist in exactly this way - that its hard to imagine that someone actually had to sit down and right them.  Particularly interesting is the fact that this was Harper Lee's first book.  She was at work on a second one, and when this was accepted by an agent she apparently somehow froze on the second; and then when this turned into a major success (and success is putting it mildly - it's possibly the best selling book of the 20th century) then it was really all over for her.  She didn't publish anything else for fifty years.  The dreaded second album problem on steroids.  
Anyway, this first album is more than most people manage in a lifetime.  It tells the story of the children of a small town lawyer in Alabama who runs into trouble with his neighbours when he defends a black man against the charge of raping a white woman.  The man is clearly innocent, but he is found guilty in any case.  This sounds like it must be a serious story of discrimination, which it is, but at the same time it is a comic story of growing up, and a portrait of a small town that is both loving and damning.
What I most enjoyed was the subtly comic tone.  When I really like a book, I tend to overquote on my blog.  Here we go: 

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flied in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by night fall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum
Teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum!  I will never look at perspiring women the same way again.  And here's the family doctor who "had brought Jem and me into the world, had led us through every childhood disease known to man including the time Jem fell out of the tree house, and he had never lost our friendship. Dr. Reynolds said that if we were boil-prone things would have been different"
The children are a girl, Scout, and a boy, Jem.  Here is Jem telling Scout to not get so angry at her aunt, as it bothers their father (who they call by his first name, Atticus):
"You know she's not used to girls," said Jem, "leastways, not girls like you. She's trying to make you a lady. Can't you take up sewin' or somethin'?" "Hell no. She doesn't like me, that's all there is to it, and I don't care. It was her callin' Walter Cunningham trash that got me goin', Jem, not what she said about being a problem to Atticus. We got that all straight one time, I asked him if I was a problem and he said not much of one, at most one that he could always figure out, and not to worry my head a second about botherin' him.

Enjoyable piece of literary trivia: the character Dill in the book, who is Scout's best friend, was based on Truman Capote, who in real life was Harper Lee's next door neighbour in childhood.  Monroeville Alabama great novelist per capita numbers are way high




Saturday, 14 July 2018

NEWLYWEDS by Nell Freudenberger

It's really important to have a plan on what you are going to read on vacation.  I had no plan and ran out of books.  Thus this, found in one of these free book exchanges in hotels.  It is about a mail order bride from Bangaldesh and her early days in the US.  It was reasonably okay, though I wasn't too sure what point it was trying to make.  Broadly, she realizes she is in love with her old Bangladeshi boyfriend, but sticks it out with the (in my mind suspiciously) okayish American so her parents can move to the First World.  I guess its a story of filial rather than marital love.  It's a good thing I have a blog because I left it in Oregon and have already almost forgotten all about it