Sunday, 10 June 2018

THE MALAY ARCHIPELAGO by Alfred Russel Wallace


I always used to feel rather sorry for Wallace, who always struck me as a rather tragic case of missing the boat.  He  was a nineteenth century naturalist that had the idea of evolution at the same time as Darwin, and wrote to Darwin (a much wealthier, older man)  to share it with him, which prompted Darwin to hurry up and publish his own existing paper on the idea quickly himself. Thus, Darwin ends up the discoverer of evolution; he is the famous one; the adjective is Darwinian and not Wallacian. What we learn from this, is don’t respect your elders.  Lesson aside, after reading this book I no longer feel sorry for Wallace.  He had an amazing life and enjoyed himself to the max. 

This book is the account of his eight years expedition around Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and East Timor in the 1850s.  In summary, it was off the hook, and he loved it, mystery fevers and diarrhoea aside.  Here he is, finding a place to keep the alcohol for his insects, and a place for himself to sleep:
. . . I thought it safer to leave my case of arrack securely placed in the fork of a tree. To prevent the natives from drinking it, I let several of them see me put in a number of snakes and lizards; but I rather think this did not prevent them from tasting it.  We were accommodated here in the verandah of the large house, in which were serveral great baskets of dried human heads, the trophies of past generations of head hunters  . .  I slept very comfortably with half a dozen smoked dried human skulls suspended over my head
Heads aside, I enjoyed his various encounters with local communities, which were surprisingly respectful for his period.  Here he is at dinner one night:
I took my evening meal in the midst of a circle of about a hundred spectators anxiously observing every movement and critising every mouthful, my thoughts involuntarily recurred to the lions at feeding time.  Like those noble animals, I too was used to it, and did not affect my appetite.  . . I. . turned showman myself, and exhibited the shadow of a dog’s head eating, which pleased them so much that all the village in succession came to see it.  The ’rabbit on the wall’ does not do in Borneo, as there is no animal it resembles.
There are some super dodgy sections whether or not some races are superior to others, and he ties himself into knots trying to prove that forced labour was good for the locals, but this is as nothing compared to your hardcore Victorians.  It’s shocking to be reminded how very long ago the 1850s were, and how much intellectual ground there was still to cover:
Poets and moralists, judging from our English trees and fruits, have thought that small fruits always grew on lofty trees, so that their fall should be harmless to man, while the large ones trailed on the ground. Two of the largest and heaviest fruits known, however, the Brazil-nut fruit (Bertholletia) and durion, grow on lofty forest trees, from which they fall as soon as they are ripe, and often wound or kill the native inhabitants. From this we may learn two things: first, not to draw general conclusions from a very partial view of nature, and secondly, that trees and fruits, no less than the varied productions of the animal kingdom, do not appear to be organized with exclusive reference to the use and convenience of man
It’s so different a world view it’s hard to imagine.  Though for sure we all still act as if the planet existence for our immediate convenience. 

Also fun, in a boring way, where his long lists of insects he collected, which he thinks are fantastically interesting, and clearly thinks we will be debating him on.  It’s compelling how he loves the natural world, and his excitement at what he finds.  He is particularly struck by the beauty of the orgutangs, and how human-like they are, and is thus especially delighted when he manages to kill like 5 adults and 3 children.  He often elaborates on how lovely a bird is  before telling us how extra thrilled he is to have shot a large number of them.  He collected over 100,000 specimens, including 5000 new to science.  And he had an amazing time doing it.  Not too bad a life, after all, even if he doesn’t get to have his surname an adjective. 

Saturday, 2 June 2018

GRANT by Ron Chernow


What I learned from this book is that you can still be a very successful person even while having plenty of serious faults, making a LOT of mistakes, and not really learning from any of them. 

Before the American Civil War, Grant had been kicked out of the army for being an alcoholic, lost his money in a swindle (not the first time, not the last), and was doing kind of a bad job as a clerk at a leather store.

Once the war started he moved up through the ranks pretty slowly, both because of the drinking problem and because he did a terrible job of managing the politics.  Politics was far more important than merit apparently in choosing leadership in the North, and it showed:  despite being massively superior in men and material they were beaten frequently.  Eventually the North were reduced to actually considering merit, and Grant reached the top of the power structure, with a million men reporting to him. 

This is when things started to get really bloody.  One reason the South was so hard to finally beat was that the end of the war was fought on their territory, where they knew the land and could dig in, so it was some sort of version of a war of attrition (as in the first world war).  Grant succeeded in part because he was willing to let people die.  Lots of people thought he was a butcher, but not too many had any idea of how else they could win.  As one Southern solider put it:
We have met a man this time who either does not know when he is whipped, or who cares not if he loses his whole Army, so that he may accomplish an end.  
Interesting was to see what it was like for the slaves as they started to win.  It reads very much like the fall of a massive four million person concentration camp:
. . .scenes of ecstatic jubilation greeted them as they passed abandoned plantations and were applauded by former slaves.  One ex-slave, seated on a lawn, rocking back and forth in joy, kept shouting, "Glory, hallelujah, glory, hallelujah . . . Bless God, bless God.  I never spected to see dis day. 
The slaves flocked to volunteer for the Union side, and at first the leadership restricted.  Once they were allowed in they proved incredibly dedicated, and far tougher than the regular troops.  This seems totally unsurprising to me, given what the slaves had survived, and what they were fighting for, but apparently was to the white people of that time. 

Once the North was won, Grant became a politician, not a great choice for someone really terrible at politics.  He also continued terrible with his money.  Much of the content for this massive, exhaustively researched book, comes from Grant's own memoir, which he wrote at great speed, in a race against death from mouth cancer (all those cigars!), so as to leave his wife a little money, as he had managed to lose it all again. 

Grant's wife was famously ugly.  Charmingly, he famously adored her.  She had some sort of major squint, which she tried to get treated:
When she mentioned the visit afterward to her husband, he was thunderstruck as to what had made her entertain such an idea.  "Why, you are getting to be such a great man and I am such a plain little wife," Julia replied.  "I thought if my eyes were as others are I might not be so very, very plain., Ulys; who knows"
I learnt a lot about the Civil War in this book, about slavery, about Reconstruction, about military nicknames (Old Goggle-Eyed Snapping Turtle being my favourite); but mostly I learnt you don't have to be perfect to still get something done. 


Saturday, 19 May 2018

THE PATRIOTS by Sana Krasikov

This book just shows you how hard it is to write a good book.  It has lots of good elements: sweeping family story, tragic Russian setting, etc.  And yet somehow it never quite rises about servicable, and I didn't care enough to finish it. 

The main and most interesting story is about a young American woman in the 1930s who has a holiday romance with a Russian man who is there on a business trip. Unfortunately she does not do what you are supposed to do with a holiday romance, that is, just do more Facebook stalking than you will admit to, and forget about it.  Instead she up and follows him to Russia.  Naturally, he is horrified.  She is horrified too, as Russia is nothing like the paradise he had written about in his letters.  This is because, as he points out in an awkward reunion, he has to write something for the censors.

To get a visa, she gives up her American passport at a Moscow government office.  BIG MISTAKE.  Apparently the Russian government at that time was laying hands on many American passports - telling people they were 'lost in the mail' and so forth.  The woman tries to go to the American embassy to get a new passport. but as she has no passport, they won't believe she is American; they weren't that excited to get back all these potential commies.  She ends up spending the rest of her life in Russia, and that life includes quite some prisons and labour camps.

Anyway, Gulag Archipelago it is not.  Also all of this could have been prevented by Facebook.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

LIKE SODIUM IN WATER by Hayden Eastwood

I never review books where I know the author

FROST IN MAY by Antonia White

This is a neatly written novel about a child's life in a convent school.  It is based on the author's own experiences in the early twentieth century, and it is as impressively weird as you hope such a place might be.  They bathe in cloaks, so as not to see their own bodies.  They try to sleep on their backs, with their hands crossed on their chests, so they will be neat if they die in their beds.  They are not allowed to have particular friends.  They are not supposed to enjoy things they are good at. 

Unsurprisingly, the author does not emerge from this unscathed.  In fact, she is pretty well scathed. A  novel she has half completed is confiscated by a nun, and she is expelled.  So terrible does she find this, that she doesn't write again for twenty years, and when she does it is simply to tell this story.  As strange website catholicwriters.com tells us, she never again felt enjoyment of artistic expression.

I admired the writing here.  It is careful and evocative.  I also enjoyed learning about a long dead world.  And yet somehow I can't say I really liked this book, for all it is so clearly deeply felt.  I guess it is just an example of the sad fact that your own painful experience is often just not all that interesting to others.  A good lesson for us all.

Friday, 4 May 2018

HOW SHOULD A PERSON BE? by Sheila Heti

I'm staggered that this book not only got published, but has been highly praised.  It's basically stream of consciousness chat from some millenial.  What I have deduced is that New York publishing must be full of people who are too old to be millenials and are worried that they may appear irrelevant.  Thus, they don't want to come out and say, this millenial has no clothes.

 But I'll go ahead and say it, because I definitely think this young emperor is most certainly super naked.  I get the idea of trying to be super close to the real by actually just writing down what you really said, but damn, what if what you actually said was dull or embarrassingly self-indulgent?

Perhaps actually the self-indulgence is actually what bothered me most.  I'm not usually acutely aware of my status as a developing world immigrant, but this book made me feel it.  I genuinely can't imagine feeling that problems this minor deserve to be written up.  It's a scale of entitlement to happiness that I am both annoyed by and envious of.

Less you think I am exaggerating, let me tell you that one of the most important conflicts of this book is when one girl buys the same dress as another girl.

Let's end with possibly the only good paragraph in the book.  Well, I don't know about good.  At least horrifying:
We are all specks of dirt, all on this earth at the same time.  I look at all the people who are alive today and think, These are my contemporaries.  These are my fucking contemporaries!  We live in an age of some really great blow-job artists.  Every era has its art form.  The nineteenth century, I know, was tops for the novel.  I just do what I an not to gag too much.  I know boyfriends get really excited when they can touch the soft flesh at the back of your throat.  At these times, I just try to breathe through my nose and not throw up on their cock.  I did vomit a little the other day, but I kept right on sucking.  

Monday, 2 April 2018

CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS by Sally Rooney

I can't think that I have ever liked a book so much that immediately after finishing it I started it again.  Enter CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS.  

I read it twice last week, back-to-back.  The second time I wasn't exactly reading it, so much as examining it, trying to figure out how it worked.  On paper it doesn't sound like the sort of book I would like: it's about a 21 year old woman, Frances, who is in an intense but poorly defined relationship with another woman, as well as having an affair with a 32 year man who is likewise is]n an undefined relationship that involves him being married.  

Sounds dreadful, doesn't it?  It feels like one of those narratives where everyone is annoyingly at the mercy of their feelings and it is clear  that the intention is to challenge the reader to learn to be less bourgeois.  And yet somehow it's actually a really appealing set of love stories with no (alright, minimal) lecturing, from which everyone emerges somewhat improved.  

I've concluded that a large part of the appeal is the sparkling contemporary dialogue, particularly some of the best use of IM and email I've ever read.  I've actually only just noticed while writing this sentence that the title of the novel is CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS, suggesting that Rooney may know what she is doing.  Here is a fun sample of a conversation between Frances and her 'girlfriend':
So how bad is this crush, from one to ten?  she said.  Ten being the kind of crush you had on me in school.
And one being a really serious crush?
She laughed, even though her mouth was full of cereal bar.
Whatever, she said. Is it like, you have fun talking to him online, or like, you want to tear him open and drink his blood?
There's something very acutely observed about the way Rooney looks at modern relationships.  Here for example Frances is having bad sex on a Tinder date:
I let myself become rigid and silent, waiting for Rossa to notice my rigidity and stop what he was doing, but he didn't.  I considered asking him to stop, but the idea that he might ignore me felt more serious than the situation needed to be.  Don't get yourself into a big legal thing, I thought.  I lay there and let him continue.  
There is also a lot of fun in the recreation of the world of the very young adult.  This may be in part because Rooney is -  brace yourself - just 26 years old herself.  Here is Frances on her plans for the future:
I hadn't been kidding with Philip about not wanting a job.  I didn't want one.  I had no plans as to my future financial sustainability: I never wanted to earn money for doing anything.  . . . Though I knew I would eventually have to enter full-time employment, I certainly never fantasized about a radiant future where I was paid to perform an economic role.  Sometimes this felt like a failure to take an interest in my own life, which depressed me.  On the other hand, I felt that my disinterest in wealth was ideologically healthy.  
There are a few false notes - British writers like 'self-harm' as a narrative device almost as much, and use it almost as cynically, as they do 'child abuse' - but other than these few caveats, I would whole heartedly recommend it.  I'm still turning it over in my mind, trying to figure out what is about it that is so wonderful.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

SEALED by Naomi Booth

For a sci-fi novel to be successful, it always has to be about something other than sci-fi.  And that 'something other' comes from the short list of human concerns we all know: love, loss, death, etc.  This sci-fi novel is extraordinarily successful, and this comes in part from a quirky and original premise, but also because it is actually about something quite unusual too: birth. 

Alice is heavily pregnant.  Herself and her partner move to a rural part of Australia to get away from the increasing toxicity of the city, and from what Alice thinks is a outbreak of a dangerous disease, called Cutis, which means your skin starts to close over your orifices.  Alice is hugely worried - she will only eat so called 'protected' foods; she washes herself after it rains; she thinks the government is covering up how bad Cutis is.  Part of the success of the book is that it is unclear how much of this is her imagination and how much real.  One reason she loves her partner Pete is that he is so much more relaxed than her, though of course, human relationships being what they are, this also annoys her.

The countryside has its own issues.  The health services are shutting down.  People are being evacuated in preparation for a 'heat event,' though they believe this is just a ruse to move them somewhere more central so services can be provided more cheaply.    It all has an eerily plausible feel.

I won't give away everything that happens, but let's just say Cutis attacks the orifice most important for child birth, and a kitchen knife is involved.  And yet, bloodshed aside, the novel is actually about hope, and about how you can have new beginning, even at the end of the world.  It's hard to explain. You'll have to read it to find out.  I recommend you do: it's a very fine novel.  Unless of course you are pregnant, in which case DEFINITELY DON'T.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

A WHOLE LIFE by Robert Seethaler

Why is it that any book which tells the story of someone's life from beginning to end is always a sad book?  Even if the central character has a happy life, the story is somehow always still sad.  I guess it's because while you can win the battle - even all the battles - you can never win the war.  No matter how many dangers you dodge, or narrow escapes you manage, or serial killers you avoid over the course of a whole life, you're always dead at the end. 

This book tells the story of a life that didn't win that many battles, never mind the war.  It's about a man called Andreas who lives in a village in the German mountains.  He is orphaned, then abused by an uncle, then loses his wife to an avalanche, then gets conscripted into the army and is a prisoner of war, then comes home and lives alone in a shack.  And all the time you know he's just going to die at the end.

It's beautifully written, and wise, but really I found it annoying.  Perhaps this is because I am still young enough to be in rebellion against death in general.  But perhaps also it is because Andreas is so annoying.  He is the strong, silent, and apparently half-witted type, who recounts the various horrors he endures in a grating monotone.  Once, near the end of of his life he decides to leave his village on impulse, on the local bus, to see what is beyond his valley.  He has a panic attack in the car park and the bus driver has to help him home.  Perhaps I should feel sorry for him but really I'm just like: Get your shit together.  Honestly.   

Sunday, 11 February 2018

MEMOIRS OF AN INFANTRY OFFICER by Siegfried Sassoon

Regular readers may recall my reading of MEMOIRS OF A FOX HUNTING MAN, which was - astonishingly - about fox hunting.  You would have thought I would be well prepared for the second book in the trilogy, MEMOIRS OF AN INFANTRY OFFICER, to be about the Infantry, but I am not sure anyone can really be prepared for what Sassoon went through.  Here is a representative sample of his experience, as an officer in the first World War:
Shell-twisted and dismembered, the Germans maintained the violent attitudes in which they had died. The British had mostly been killed by bullets or bombs, so they looked more resigned. But I on remember a pair of hands (nationality unknown) which protruded from die soaked ashen soil like the roots of a tree turned upside down; one hand seemed to be pointing at the sky with an accusing gesture. Each time I passed that place the protest of those fingers became more expressive of an appeal to God in defiance of those who made the War.  Who made the War? I laughed hysterically as the thought passed through my mud-stained mind. But I only laughed mentally, for my box of Stokes-gun ammunition left me no breath to spare for an angry guffaw. . . . . Such sights must be taken for granted, I thought, as I gasped and slithered and stumbled with my disconsolate crew. Floating on the surface of the flooded trench was the mask of a human face which had detached itself from the skull.
I for sure was not prepared for this, and neither was Sassoon.  Particularly horrible is the periods when his regiment knows they must 'go over the top' at a certain time or date.    The majority of them know they will not survive it, and the waiting is almost more terrible to read about than the fighting itself.  

Sassoon is great at quickly describing a person, and it is unnerving how often he brings someone to life, only immediately to casually kill him (they did not survive to the Autumn . . I heard he died two weeks later . . etc).  It especially awful how many of them are just eighteen or nineteen.  He has huge admiration for the courage of his comrades, and his previous ideas as to class crumble quickly.  
As we entered it I noticed an English soldier lying by the road with a horribly smashed head; soon such sights would be too frequent to attract attention, but this first one was perceptibly unpleasant. At the risk of being thought squeamish or even unsoldierly, I still maintain that an ordinary human being has a right to be momentarily horrified by a mangled body seen on an afternoon walk, although people with sound common sense can always refute me by saying that life is full of gruesome sights and violent catastrophes. But I am no believer in wild denunciations of the War; I am merely describing my own experiences of it; and in 1917 I was only beginning to learn that life, for the majority of the population, is an unlovely struggle against unfair odds, culminating in a cheap funeral. Anyhow the man with his head bashed in had achieved theoretical glory by dying for his country in the Battle of Arras, and we who marched past him had an excellent chance of following his example.
We leave these MEMOIRS just when Sassoon is planning to publicly denounce the war in the newspaper, probably leading to his courtmartial.  He's furious at Generals who don't understand what they are asking of troops, at civilians, at churches, at anyone who speaks badly of the Infantry - even German infantry. I'm definitely going to read the next book; he looks like he is going to survive the war - the question for me is how he manages to survive the peace.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

CHERRY by Mary Karr

This is a story of a wild adolescence in Texas.  The most interesting part was about sex.  Perhaps this is unsurprising.  But what surprised me was that it was about a girl wanting to have sex. There was a lot of crushes, and dates, and deflowering.  It made me realise how rarely one reads about women wanting sex.  I have read so very very many books about male desire (Roth's PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT; Miller's appalling TROPIC OF CANCER); and suddenly reading this one I was aware of how little I'd read about women.  I can't believe i never really noticed this before.  No wonder men so often think we're not up for it.

Less interesting was the extensive drug experimentation.  Writing about tripping is as dull as writing about your dreams, but druggies rarely seem aware of this.  Even recovering addicts, whose books are all about how drugs destroyed their lives, often have the idea that it is interesting for you to hear about this time a kitten turned into a flower.   This book has lots of that, so I mostly skipped those bits.  I felt a bit bad; I always feel bad when I find memoirs boring, because they are the actual story of someone's life.  No doubt, we all think we are interesting.

I was also a little annoyed by the author's clear conviction that she had a tough childhood.  There is lots in here about how awful small town Texas was, which is a little hard to take.  She had two parents and a car and a free public school to go to.  It's not exactly Darfur.

I did find one great piece of wisdom in this book.  I do on some level read to learn, and I didn't exactly expect this book to be a source of profound insight.  But here it is; the advice of the girl's mother on competing with other girls:  YOU JUST HAVE TO BE SMARTER THAN THOSE WHO ARE PRETTIER, AND PRETTIER THAN THOSE WHO ARE SMARTER.

If I ever have a daughter, I'm giving that to her as a crossstitch sampler the year she turns thirteen.

(If interested, I recall I have also read another book by Karr, about her descent into alcoholism - LIT)

Sunday, 28 January 2018

TIES by Domenico Starnone

This is a fine novel, translated from the Italian, about a man who leaves his wife and children for a graduate student twenty years his junior.  Eventually he gives her up and goes back to them.  In many stories this would be a story about a mistake that ends in redemption.  TIES is the reverse.  The affair is the redemption; and returning to the wife and small children is the mistake.  The novel is set some thirty years after the affair,  and we see how both husband and wife's lives have been wasted; the one in staying in a relationship in which he is not truly interested; the other, in dishing out revenge on a daily basis for decades.    Sometimes being happy takes courage.

Affairs are rarely positive in fiction, which is I think interesting.  Does this reflect life?  Or does this reflect a morality we wish applied to life?  In any case, TIES is an unusual and very excellent upending of the traditional story.  It made me wonder what is going on in Italian fiction.  It reminded me of the remarkable Italian author Elena Ferrente, and her novel DAYS OF ABANDONMENT, which tells a similar story from the wife's perspective (and very similar; Naples, elderly upstairs neighbour, smallish children).  Then you guys I googled it and, Starnone and Ferrante are not just both Italian authors, and not just both from Naples, and not just both married, but they are married to each other.   This somehow confounds me.  What a strange joint literary project.  I don't know why, but I find it kind of sleazy.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

THE ADVERSARY by Emmanuel Carrere

This is a French true crime novel.  Why am I reading it?  Who knows.  I can't even remember where I found it.  I do love true crime TV, but am typically too embarrassed to be buying true crime fiction.  Perhaps it being French gave it a veneer of respectability.  Anyway, I'm glad I read it, because it tells of a truly fascinating and bizarre crime.  Actually, the crime itself is not so fascinating, or bizarre.  Some man kills his wife, children, and parents.  I mean in America this is hardly even a crime.  What makes it interesting is that the murderer, Jean-Claude Romonde, an apparently boring bourgeois family man, has been living a life of total deception before the murders for almost twenty years.  It takes some going for the mass murder you commit to be the least interesting part of your life story.

It all starts in his second year at University, where he oversleeps and misses his last exam.  Instead of just retaking the exam, he decides to pretend he has passed.  He continues to pretend to his friends that he is a student, and to buy books, and study, and walk around the hospital, for the next five years, until he 'graduates' with the rest of them.  He marries his college sweetheart, and moves on to pretending he is a high profile doctor at the WHO.  In fact, he just goes to their lobby and sits there for a bit, before going to sleep in a lay-by.  Then he goes home.  And he does this for twenty years!  Sometimes he pretends to go on a business trip, checking into the airport hotel for a few days, and reading the guide book for where he is supposed to be.   

He also does a lot of 'investing' for his family and friends - in fact, just stealing their money to fund his lifestyle of daytime napping.  So for years he knows that the whole thing must come to an end at some point.  When it does - when someones asks for their money back - he responds by killing everybody + the family dog.  I mean, wow.