Friday, 31 December 2010

Surviving 2010


Oh god it's the last day of 2010.

I had an old nun as a teacher in high school who always used to say TIME FLIES GIRLS. ARE YOU USING IT WISELY? TODAY IS TUESDAY. WEDNESDAY, THURSDAY, FRIDAY AND THE WEEK IS GONE. TIME FLIES.

She was a very youthful lady in her 90s, and managed to give the strong impression that time really did fly, and that we were probably not using it wisely, if only because nobody does.

ANYWAY, let's not dwell on that too much shall we? One thing I have managed to do in 2010 is, to my amazement, actually fulfill my commitment to blog every book I read this year. The final list is (unless I get really crazy this afternoon . . . )

1.A SUITABLE BOY by Vikram Seth
2.DR THORNE by Anthony Trollope
3.2666 by Roberto Bolano
4.YOU DON'T LOVE ME YET by Jonathan Lethem
5.WEDLOCK by Wendy Moore
6.THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand
7.WHEN YOU ARE IN ENGULFED IN FLAMES by David Sedaris
8.DR THORNE by Anthony Trollope
9.STARLINGS LAUGHING by June Vendall Clark
10.THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS by Kiran Desai
11.DILEMMA OF A GHOST/ANOWA by Ama Ata Aidoo
12.THE LOST DOG by Michelle de Krester
13.THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
14.THE SAVAGE GARDEN by Mark Mills
15.ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY by David Sedaris
16.WIZARD OF THE CROW by Ngugi wa Thiong'o
17.FRAMLEY PARSONAGE by Anthony Trollope
18.THE BOTTOM BILLION by Paul Collier
19.DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON by George Orwell
20.BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S by Truman Capote
21.WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel
22.MOUNTAINS BEYOND MOUNTAINS by Tracy Kidder
23.THIS SEPTEMBER SUN by Bryony Rheam
24.THE LAST CHRONICLE OF BARSET by Anthony Trollope
25.THE SMALL HOUSE AT ALLINGTON by Anthony Trollope
26.CIDER WITH ROSIE by Laurie Lee
27.GLOBALIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS by Joseph E Stiglitz
28.THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS by James Fenimore Cooper
29.FAST FOOD NATION by Eric Schlosser
30.JOY IN THE MORNING by PG Wodehouse
31.FREE FOOD FOR MILLIONAIRES by Min Jin Lee
32.CHARITY GIRL By Georgette Heyer
33.IT'S NOW OR NEVER by Carole Matthews
34.THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO by Stieg Larsson
35.THE END OF POVERTY by Jeffery Sachs
36.ELEGY FOR EASTERLY by Petina Gappah
37.MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR by William Shakespeare
38.I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith
39.HANGOVER SQUARE by Patrick Hamilton
40.DARK MATTER by Michelle Paver
41.ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT by Jeanette Winterson
42.PIED PIPER by Nevil Shute
43.WHITE MAN'S BURDEN by William Easterly
44.THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA by Stendhal
45.PROMISES, PROMISES by Erica James
46.BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES by Tom Wolfe
47.TROPIC OF CANCER by Henry Miller
48.A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME by Anthony Powell
49.THE REVERSAL by Michael Connelly
50.A MILLION LITTLE PIECES by James Frey
51.IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote
52.OUR HUSBAND HAS GONE MAD AGAIN by Ola Rotimi
53.NATIVE SON by Richard Wright
54.THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK by Doris Lessing
55.THE GORSE TRILOGY by Patrick Hamilton
56.STILL LIFE WITH WOODPECKER by Tom Robbins

Highlights: I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith (mindblowing) GULAG ARCHIPELAGO by Solzhenitsyn (also mindblowing, but in a very different way). Both are gnaw your own arm off wonderful.

Lowlights: 2666 by Robert Bolano. It's managed to hold its crown of terribleness since I gave up on it in about February, so I thought for sure it would be in on the day - but there's an unexpected late contender for worst book of the year, which I only started (and gave up on) yesterday: STILL LIFE WITH WOODPECKER by Tom Robbins. Dreadful, dreadful, I-think-I'm-so-funny-but-I'm-only-dreadful and I keep calling a girl's vagina 'the peachfish' - reminding us of TROPIC OF CANCER's 'the rosebush' - let's not say anymore.

2010's been a great blogging year, and I've been really happy to meet lots of new bookish friends on this blog.

See you in 2011! I've got a brilliant new plan: definitely let's keep a list of literary names for ladies' bits in the New Year. Hoorah! Now that's something to look forward to.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

MR STIMPSON AND MR GORSE and UNKNOWN ASSAILANT by Patrick Hamilton


These two novels complete THE GORSE TRILOGY. They follow our anti-hero, Ralph Ernest Gorse, as he continues to con women out of their money.

MR STIMPSON AND MR GORSE is oddly named, as Mr Stimpson comes into the story only tangentially. Mr Gorse’s real prey is one Mrs Plumleigh-Bruce, a colonel’s widow with inflated ideas as to her own status. She is, as is common with every other character in this novel, completely unpleasant: vain, grasping, and calculating. Gorse convinces her of his probity by encouraging her to entrust him with small amounts of money initially (to bet on the horses for example). He eventually convinces her to become secretly engaged to him, and they spend a wild week in London, during which he encourages her to drink far too much. She entrusts him with £500, and he sends her back home to Reading, saying he will follow shortly. Needless to say he does not.

One very striking aspect of this novel is how much of it takes place in drinking establishments. Everyone is constantly either drinking or drunk. Patrick Hamilton clearly spent an ungodly amount of time in bars, as I don’t think I’ve ever read such detail or accuracy about pub culture, pub conversation, drunken dalliances, the taste of brandy, the effect of ‘Gin and It,’ Monday morning hangovers, etc etc etc. It kind of made me want to have a drink.

UNKNOWN ASSAILANT

The title made me very worried that here Ralph Ernest Gorse would finally mature from conman to serial killer. The atmosphere of these books is strangely suspenseful – or stressful might be a better term – and I was kind of worried this might be where it was going. However, bizarrely, this was the most cheerful of the books, and included, incredibly, a character who was not irredeemably bad! Amazing. Of course, we are immediately told that he is to die senselessly in the early days of the WWII, so fear not, this is still vintage Hamilton.

Gorse meets a rather dim barmaid, Ivy, and convinces her that he would like to marry her. He bamboozles her (through her stupidity and timidity); and then bamboozles her father too (but in this case through his cupidity and brutality), into investing in a fictitious theatrical enterprise. Once he has their money safely in hand, he takes Ivy to a lonely part of the countryside. You can see where I thought this was going to go horribly wrong. However, all he does is tie her up, tell her she has been swindled, and leave her to make her own way home.

At this she point, she meets the one not thoroughly objectionable character in the book, Stan, a lone telegraph boy, who takes her home, comforts her, and gives her the courage not to return to her horrible and vindictive father.

The last two books in THE GORSE TRILOGY continue to be bleakly funny, as:

Chelsea proper is, as is well known, despite its countless normal inhabitants, the favourite London resort of those who are obvious failures or of those who are obviously going to be failures before long. The failure is nearly always of an ‘artistic’ kind.


But I found that more than funny, they were bleak. I enjoyed them, but I am glad they are finished. For some reason I am not surprised that they were Patrick Hamilton’s last novels before he drank himself to death. The man who wrote the Introduction called these end-of-the-tether novels, and while I don’t know exactly what he means, I know exactly what he means.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

THE WEST PIER by Patrick Hamilton


This came to me in the way I best like books to come: randomly. Someone else picked it out for me at the library.

The author's voice was naggingly familiar, and eventually I placed it: it's Patrick Hamilton! He wrote the fairly fabulous HANGOVER SQUARE, which I blogged earlier this year. (Here it is).

THE WEST PIER is the first in a trilogy of novels based on a real life confidence man, Neville Heath. It begins by telling of his time at school, and his love of 'mischief' – for example, he always carries a long pin about with him, so he can make punctures in the wheels of any bicycles he finds unattended. He attends a rather posh public (or private, depending on the country you're reading this in) school, and is generally sheilded from the consequences of his actions. The story then catches up with him as a young man just after the First World War, and tells how he manages to defraud a working class girl of her life savings (£68; a great deal to her, and not very much to him) simply for the thrill of it.

Much that appealed about HANGOVER SQUARE also appeals about THE WEST PIER. There a sort of coldly comic edge to it which is often hilarious. Like this bit of schoolboy conversation in a changing room:

"You'd better not accuse me, you know” said Kerr, now anxious to be accused, and endeavouring to create the allusion that this had already happened. “Because I'll jolly well punch your nose.”
“And you'd better not accuse me either,” said another boy named Roberts, perceving and rushing with all his belongings towards the glorious Yukon of quarreling with Kerr had discovered. “Or I'll jolly well punch your nose too.”

For some reason, I just love that about the Yukon. Or this, about these same boys as young men in their early twenties:
All these boys were, of course, in what is deceptively called the 'morning' of life – deceptive because the vigorous word 'morning' does not at all suggest the clouded, oppressive, mysterious, disquieted, inhibited condition through which the vast majority have to pass at this age.

I don't know if that's so much funny as it is sadly true. And this is I think the reason I can't really say I enjoyed this book. It's written with great clarity, truly remarkable insight into human behaviour, and with painfully accurate analysis of how people act in social situations; but it's all rather sad. The con man is a clever, cunning, and unpleasant man. His victims are greedy, vain, and rather credulous. These people are drawn clearly and intelligently, but I wasn't sure to what effect. The bad man tricked the stupid people. That was basically it.

Perhaps I'm being rather Victorian about it all, but I didn't really get the point. It was all rather sad and defeated, and no one emerged well or was any the wiser from their experiences.

I believe poor Mr Hamilton ended his life an alcoholic, and I think I would drink too if I found the world so very full of evil and idiocy. In fact, I might just go have a drink right now. I'm not sure how else I'll get through the rest of the trilogy.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

WHITE MAN’S BURDEN by William Easterly (Contd)


You thought I had forgotten this one! But I haven’t. It was bubbling away nicely on the back burner.

Easterly delivers a damning indictment of aid to the developing world. He points out that:
-most aid is not properly evaluated. There is virtually no high quality independent evaluation of most aid spending. No one really knows what projects are actually succeeding.
-most aid organisations have insanely large and vague missions (eg: end global poverty). So even if there was evaluation, it would be hard to know exactly what one was evaluating.
-because the missions are so grandiose, no one really expects any success
-most aid is driven by what the funders want, or on what looks good to the public in the rich world, not what the poor actually need
-too much money is spent on conference after report after paper after project, which gives an impression of activity to very little real effect.
-too much power is given to central planners with little realistic grasp of what can work, which Easterly believes can only be solved on a small scale, case-by-case basis

In short, he seems to be saying what many suspect: that the EMPORER HAS NO CLOTHES ON. Nothing much is being done, but at great expense.

I think a great deal of what he says is very accurate with regard to the pitfalls of aid. His solutions are however not all terribly convincing. Some ideas are excellent, and I don’t really understand why they are not already in place (eg. independent evaluation; aid workers staying based in one country, not moving around - I totally agree with that! etc). Some are rather more dubious. He bangs on about how there ought not be too much top down planning, but rather that the poor ought to be able to say what they want. This sounds very good, and I feel rather guilty opposing it, but let’s face it: sometimes what the poor want is to cut off little girls’ bits. Yes, alright that’s a bit flip. But my point is, if you don’t know germs are causing your baby’s diarrhoea, then how can you demand anti-bacterial soap?

Mr Easterly seems to have a somewhat naïve faith in the markets, with the idea that the poor, if allowed to function as consumers (which is apparently our natural state) would soon put themselves to rights. I found the whole book to be written with a staggeringly splendid degree of pre-credit crunch confidence.

One favourite part includes a long list of the IMF’s successes. Then he admits that elsewhere, the IMF has had ‘more mixed success.’ That’s one way to put it.

(His blog, if you are interested, and it is interesting, is here)

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Bookish Profiled on Wealth of Ideas

Emmanuel Sigauke runs a very interesting blog over at WEALTH OF IDEAS. He is running a series on who read what in 2010, and profiled my blog as part of it. There's a little interview, and the year's reading list. Here it is!

Thanks Emmanuel!

Sunday, 19 December 2010

THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK by Doris Lessing


I am thoroughly confused as to how I actually feel about this book. On the one hand, I found it annoying and boring. On the other, I found it profound and enlightening.

The first level on which I feel divided by it is on the level of culture. Doris Lessing grew up in Zimbabwe, and lived there till she was about thirty. The book is full of her memories of Zim. She even went to my high school! I feel like I therefore ought to feel the kind of fondness for her I have for Bryony Rheam, but I can't. We're from the same physical location, but it's a very different place, because while I'm Zimbabwean, she's southern Rhodesian.

In this case, let me assure you, the past really is a foreign country. Apparently, it's one where they eat steak and kidney pies, and say 'I say old chap' and feel that they are strangers in a strange land (DESPITE IT BEING WHERE THEY ARE ACTUALLY FROM). But anyway, shame. She's a woman of her period, and we none of us escape our period.

And that's another point. She keeps going on about her periods. The book is very much about the dawn of the feminist movement, about her relationships with men, about opportunity for women, and so on. Also her periods. You get the impression no one had ever written about periods before. Which, thinking about it, maybe they hadn't. She seems to spend a lot of time agonising about feminist issues which now seem so obvious; but probably they are only obvious now because women before us did a lot of agonising. I think I might be irrirated with her in the same way you can be irritated with your mother; with someone to whom you owe a great deal.

Okay, what the book is actually about. It's more or less six books. There is one overarching novel, called FREE WOMEN, and the novel is interspersed with sections from the notebooks of the author of the novel, Anna Wulf. The notebooks deal with various aspects of Anna's life (politics, private thoughts etc etc), and as the novel is also autobiographical you feel you are hearing the same story from many different perspectives. I found it very interesting in terms of seeing how ordinary experience is filtered and reshaped to become fiction – what is excluded and what included.

The basic story, told in its many versions, is of a woman (Anna, or Ella as she is sometimes called) living in London in the mid 1950s, with her small daughter (Janet/Michael) her female friend (Molly/Julia) and her friend's teenage son. Both women struggle with being divorced, and thus 'free' and are constantly sleeping with, and having their hearts broken by, married men. Anna is living off the royalties of her first novel, and Molly is an actress; both are initially committed socialists. Anna moves out eventually, after a failed relationship, and her daughter goes to boarding school. Living on her own, she begins to unravel mentally; but in the end you get the sense there she is going to be able to hold it together. There is a strong sense of what is learnt over a long life.

In an interview, Lessing said she wanted to capture London as it was in the middle of the twentieth century (as the great nineteenth century novelists did) and I feel she has succeeded. A mark of a great novel is I think when you really feel like you sort of know a place or a time as if you have been there, and this novel absolutely fills that requirement. (Let's also give a shout out to A HOUSE FOR MR BISWAS on this front).

You learn a lot about what it was to be a communist in the middle of the twentieth century, just as news of Stalin's crimes was being released. Read from the perspective of today, the idealism is really heatbreaking; they honestly believe communism will genuinely make a better world. It made me think how very cynical we are today; I don't think hardly anyone believes there is a solution to the world being a mess – I think we just think that's it's natural state.

She's in psychoanalysis, so you learn a lot about that too. She endlessly goes on about her dreams, and I skipped these parts, much as you switch off when people tell you about their dreams in real life. . . . . I was in a golden hall with a box, and in the box was a crocodile, and people were . . . SHUT UP Doris.

The book also really helps you understand what it was to live before the sexual revolution. It's obssessed with sex as a deeply meaningful element of life in a way I find really foreign. You must prepare yourself for lines such as “Integrity is the orgasm” and strange, over intellectualised scenes such as:

“Anna, we have nothing to say to each other, why not?” “Because we aren't the same kind of person” “What does that mean, the same kind of person?” he asked, injecting the automatic irony into his voice – a sort of willed, protective, ironic drawl . . . Then he said, “Come to bed.” In bed, he put his and on my breast and I felt sexual revulsion and said: “What's the use, we aren't any good for each other and never have been?” So we went to sleep.”

She has so much heartbreak and despair in her attempt to make sex meaningful, it is sort of astonishing. You honestly just want to take the character and sit her down in front of the SEX AND THE CITY. What a brave new world we live in.

I admired the central character Anna/Ella very much (Though she is probably I think Anna/Ella/Doris really). She was making such a noble struggle against so many massive odds: the partriachy, capitalism, commercialism, etc. They frequently return to the idea that there is a dark mountain, called human ignorance, and that great men stand on top of it, making great discoveries. Others, less great, work on pushing the boulder of humanity up the mountain. They keep trying, putting all their lives and talents into making small changes, and moving it a few inches forward. She is, she says, one of the boulder pushers.

On the other hand, she acts offended when people want to buy the movie rights to her book, because she is so horrified with commercialism. Get a GRIP, woman.

So the book while irritating, opened a window to me on to a particular era, and by so doing helped me understand my own time. And while the central character was irritating, she was also genuinely inspiring. There is a sense that what is worthwhile is the struggle – the struggle to live your own life in your own way – whether you are successful or not.

Also, let me just mention again, she went to my high school, and is a Nobel Laureate. Well done Convent! Yes Chisipite? Yes Arundel? Any Nobel Laureates? No? No? Any other major international prizes of any kind? No? I guess that means it's time to SUCK IT!

(And you can start sucking it without even getting on to Kirsty Coventry)

Saturday, 11 December 2010

OUR HUSBAND HAS GONE MAD AGAIN by Ola Rotimi


I was fortunate to be taught by Ola Rotimi at university in the US. He appeared at that time entirely circular, due to the huge number of layers he wore against the Minnesota cold. He was a charming and intelligent man, with a fiery passon for African theatre, and a great many opinions on all subjects from the World Bank (very negative) to palm wine (very positive). He once bought me a theatre ticket, and signed the card to 'his little African sister.' A lovely man. He passed away in 2000.

OUR HUSBAND HAS GONE MAD AGAIN is my favourite of all his works. It carries a genuinely crazy West African energy, and you can't help but adore it's fine disregard for Western realism. The play tells the story of one Major Lejoka-Brown, who despite having left the army many years ago, and made a fortune in cocoa, still carries himself as a miltary man, and now that he is entering politics is organising his campaign on bizarrely miliatry lines.

Before the play begins, he has married a Kenyan woman, Liza, who has since been studying medicine in the US. She is now on her way to live with him in Nigeria, and is unaware that he has not one, but two other wives, and the Major is determined to keep it that way. Really he loves Liza, and the two wives are sort of unintentional: one is much older, his late brother's wife, who he had to marry as per Muslim custom, and the other much younger, who he married to advance his political career. Liza arrives and predictably discovers the two other wives; but from there on it all becomes more and more unpredictable. Liza forges allegiances with the wives, teaching the older about supply and demand, so she becomes a chicken magnate, and inciting the younger to oppose the Major in his ludicrous election.

There's a wild mix of ideas here, about gender equity, old and new Nigerias, bikinis and hijabs, etc etc. It's a lovely little show. The plot is maybe a teensy bit weak, but somehow I really don't care.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

HARPERS December 2010


My Harpers is here!

There is always something interesting I didn't know about in this magazine. For example, who knew that there were 'content mills' for the internet. From the Dept of We're-All-Going-to-Hell-in-a-Handbasket:

". . . consider the example of Demand Media, a so-called content-mill, which uses a vast collection of Web-recruited freelancers to generate articles for about $15 per 300-word item; copy editors are said to get $2.50 for each piece they correct. The outfit's editorial direction is chartered by what the company's prospectus calls "our propeitary algorithms," which is to say, equations that mainly weigh two factors: what perople are searching for on Google and what advertisers might pay to associate themselves with a given topic." (EASY CHAIR by Thomas Frank)

Even more proper newspapers, like USA Today, have used these mills. Journalism is dead and we are all totally screwed.

Let me just close off by saying something that is not strictly relevant, but has been bothering me for some time. What is going on with Julian Assange's hair? Is it prematurely white? Or is it white in the usual way, but his face is freakishly young? Or what? These journalists keep reporting on Wikileaks, but no one is asking the real questions.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

NATIVE SON by Richard Wright


According to the back: “NATIVE SON follows the fortunes of Bigger Thomas, a young black man who is trapped in a life of poverty in the slums of Chicago. Unwittingly involved in a wealthy woman's death, he is hunted relentlessly, baited by prejudiced officials, charged with murder and driven to acknowledge a strange pride in his crime.”

Well, sort of. But actually this undersells this novel, making it sound like a straightforward condemnation of racial attitudes in America in the twentieth century, with Bigger the innocent victim of an evil system. In fact, Bigger is a complex character. He is presented as violent, and frustated, and I'm not sure we can describe his murder as entirely unwitting. He most wittingly continues by burning the lady in a furnace, to cover up his crime, and demands a ransom from her parents. He then goes on to rape and murder his girlfriend when he fears she will expose him. When the white woman's bones are discovered in the furnace, he goes on the run, and is eventually captured, tried, and sentenced to death. However, without making Bigger in any way a saint, or implying he is not responsible for his actions, the book still manages to put Bigger's society on trial, rather than Bigger himself.

This book was written in 1940, and made Wright the first best selling black novelist in the US. I think it was remarkably brave at such a period to present such a negative portrait of a black man, and a remarkable feat of writing skill to ensure we feel sympathy for him. This reader, at any rate, found it easy to understand his frustration, and even the sense of joy and freedom he felt once he had committed the murder. He finally feels as if he has some sort of control over his own life, and is at last a person to be reckoned with.

The first two sections, 'Fear,' about his life before the murder, and 'Flight' about his life after it, are beautifully written. Clear, compelling, gorgeously unpretentious (save for one terrible sex scene). The last, 'Fate' is not quite up to this standard. It covers his trial, and has some dreadful unconvincing set pieces, in the way of speeches to the jury, and a heroic but misguided attempt to have Bigger realise what has been wrong in his life in his last moments.

The back again, from David Mamet: NATIVE SON is, in addition to being a masterpiece, a Great American Novel”. Mr Mamet, you are still a mysoginist. But you are right about Native Son.

Friday, 3 December 2010

BRITAIN'S WORLD CUP BID or, Being Safe in Elevators


In an unexpected departure for this blog, let's talk about football for a moment. This doesn't really count in a blog about reading, expect in so far as if you are literate you cannot fail to have read about the UK losing the World Cup. In fact, even if you aren't literate. Even if you are living in a box, pretty much.

Now I don't care at all about the World Cup. But, what makes me cross is the fact that apparently the British bid team were told that it was the British media that hurt the bid's chances. This is clearly a thinly veiled reference to the allegations on Panorama about the World Cup bidding being totally corrupt, which no doubt were entirely correct.

So who do they give it to instead? RUSSIA. Which is certainly not going to have it's bid effected by any small inconvenience such as a goddamn FREE PRESS. No, no, if you had anything to say about the World Cup in a Russian newspaper, you better watch out next time you get into an ELEVATOR. Let's take a moment here to salute ANNA POLITKOVSKAYA! (If you don't know who you are saluting: here)

It makes me proud to be British. Or 30% British. Or whatever I am.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

WHITE MAN'S BURDEN by William Easterly


I've only just begun this one but I just had to give you an update. So far it's very interesting, mostly it seems an attempt to discredit THE END OF POVERTY, which I blogged about earlier this year here. However, he makes some incredibly quaint statements, such as positing that markets are – get this - “the ideal vehicle for feedback and accountability”.

How charmingly pre-credit crunch! The sweetly naïve good old days of 2007. I am very much not noticing the jails overcrowded with AIG employees, or the unemployment queues full of traders from Goldman Sacs. Feedback. Ha ha. Accountability. Ha bloody ha.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA by Stendhal


I kept meaning to read something by Stendhal, ever since I learnt about Stendhal Syndrome. Quite different to Stockholm Syndrome, this is when you are so overwhelmed by the beauty of a place or event that you become ill. Apparently, this happened to Stendhal when he first went to Florence. It makes me feel a bit inadequate. I'm not sure I've ever been so overcome by beauty that it made me ill. Though actually, come to think of it, I was sick in Florence. But that had more to do with an quaint traditional sandwich I had than with great art. The filling was all juicy and . . . bouncy. I don't eat much meat, so I just thought, maybe I've just forgotten what meat tastes like. But then I looked at the filling itself, and immediately feeling some serious concerns, looked it up in the phrase book, and found out it was SHEEP STOMACH.

So that was more sheep stomach syndrome than stendahl syndrome. Though I did learn a valuable lesson: do not eat apparently quaint and traditional foods in foreign countires without doing your research.

Anyway, THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA. First of all, extra points for a great title. This book tells the story of one Fabrizio del Dongo, the younger son of a wealthy nobleman, who is inspired by liberal ideals runs away to support Napoleon, arriving just in time for the walloping defeat of Waterloo. He is then in trouble with his very conservative father and has to go on the run, escaping various perils from treacherous courtiers to enraged actors. He is sheilded by his aunt, with whom, in a bizarre turn of events, he starts to have an incestuous relationship. I can't tell you what happens after that because I kind of gave up on page 225. It was just ridiculous, he kept going from one swashbuckling adventure to the next and I got bored. Either there is something wrong with Stendhal or with Sarah.

There were a few great bits. The French Revolution has only taken place some fiftly years before, and there is a very interesting series of discussions about what the end of reverence for nobility means for nobles such as Fabrizio. There are some hilarious minature pen portraits, such as, on the people of nineteenth century Parma: "they sat on the pavement eating icecream and criticizing passersby;" or, on discussing rural peoples' superstitions – "What do you expect! These people had hardly read four books in their whole lives!"

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

HARPER'S – November 2010


As you can see, I am catching up with my HARPERS addiction . . .

From the Dept. of Well Okaaaay :

“Also a Western conceit is a vampire's pallor; whereas female vampires are beautiful and white robed, most firsthand accounts indicate that male vampires are ruddy, corpulent peasants, whose affect - once unearthed – is that of a freshly gorged mosquito. In animal form, the vampire is not strictly limited to the bat but can appear to its victims as a cat, a dog, a rodent or even a butterfly. These manifestations are not to be confused with vampires that were never human in the first place, which may even assume a vegetal guise (among numerous indignities through history, the Roma suffered the obscure nuisance of vampire watermelons).”
Twilight of the Vampires: Hunting the real-life undead” By Tea Obreht

In other news, from the Harper's Index:
Percentage increase since 1960 in the average weight of a farm-raised US Turkey = 72
Chance that an American couple who met since 2007 met online = 1 in 4

Monday, 15 November 2010

PROMISES, PROMISES by Erica James

In the interests of historical accuracy, I must tell you I read the above. For work, please. I don't think it's released yet in the UK, so I won't say anything further.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

HARPER'S October 2010


This is the only magazine I read regularly, Harper's. My lovely friend Dio gave me a subscription. My favourite bit is the Index, which is a page of sobering statistics. A sample:

Percent of the entire national income taken by the wealthiest 10% of Americans in 2007 = 50

Chance that a Chinese criminal prosecution will result in a guilty vedict = 9 in 10

And, one to think about when next you have a drink or two:

Chance that a Briton who has sent a sexually explicit text message has sent it to the wrong person = 1 in 5

Thursday, 11 November 2010

BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES by Tom Wolfe


This is a famous novel of 1980s New York.

It's main character is Sherman McCoy, a fabulously wealthy bond trader with a fashionable wife and a younger mistress. It's all feels very apropos our current obsession with filthy bankers. There's lots of shouting and making huge amounts of money for not too damn much in the way of actual work. However, they occasionally break off from this mythic money making to use a pay phone, or to send a fax, which gives the whole thing a sweetly quaint air.

One day, Sherman picks his mistress up at the airport in his Mercedes sportscar, and they get lost in the Bronx. They hit a young black man and leave the scene. The story follows the collapse of Sherman's life as this incident is investigated and prosecuted.

It's an immensely cynical novel. There is not a single character in it who is no driven by ulterior motives: the criminal case is twisted by all sorts of people (journalists, ministers, judges) for their own personal gain. This dark view of the city and the era is so insistent, and so powerfully stated, and re-stated, and stated again just in case we missed it, that I kept expecting Sherman to finally change, to grow, to provide some kind of climax or rebuke to this world, if only because it seemed artistically necessary, after 713 pages of gloom. Not so: Sherman is crushed by events, no doubt just as he deserves.

There are women in this book, and they come in two varieties: no, not the usual madonna or whore, but pretty or ugly. That's pretty much it for the women. All the men, no matter how differently their characters are drawn, share the same view of women. That is, they like to view them, but only if they are under 25. All married men are by definition unhappy apparently. I think I can guarantee that Tom Wolfe is unmarried, or if he is married, that the lady is a good bit younger than he is.

VICTORIANA ALERT! Apparently Wolfe was inspired to write this book in part by Thackeray's VANITY FAIR. He wanted to write a great novel of the city, of New York, and was inspired by the older novel's presentation of London. This gives us an interesting perspective on the title. Extra points for naming main female character in Vanity Fair. NO GOOGLING.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

TROPIC OF CANCER by Henry Miller


Apparently this one was banned on publication for being too sexually explicit. I think it should have been banned for being so incredibly boring.

I can't really tell you what it is about, as I had to stop about twenty pages in. There is some guy. He is an aspiring novelist, he is poor, he is Paris. So far, so DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON. And yet, from the same source material as Orwell, this guy has managed to write a load of rubbish.

Basically, the main character likes to have sex with prostitutes. One of these prostitutes (and we are not talking wealthy call girls, but starving women on the street) "loves her work." Apparently, she is all body, and only exists in sensation. She does a lot of panting in her torn hose. What immensely craptacular nonsense. Her labia are referred to repeatedly as her rosebush. I'm sorry, that's when I had to give up.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME by Anthony Powell


Now this is a book I really wanted to like. Sometimes you come across a book in a perfect kind of way, and with the weird symmetry that life can sometimes have, it becomes the perfect book for you right then. I found this book randomly in a Goodwill in LA. I had just had my mind boggled by what books cost in a real bookshop (a place I never go): US$16! So the price was right: US$1.99. Also, it was the only thing worth reading in the whole place. I was giving up, because all the rest was sad 80s chick lit, or self help (Dream Yourself Thin, etc), when suddenly I found "the major achievement in post-war English fiction" (Guardian); "one of the most important works of fiction since the Second World War" (New Yorker) and "more realistic than A La Recherche du Temps Perdu" (Evelyn Waugh). And I'd never heard of it! The Waugh really sold me. As we know, I love me some Proust in a serious, and seriously embarrasing, way. I love big fat novels that you can live in for months, and I love dry old English lit.

And it certainly is dry. Very dry. It's told in the first person, by one Nick Jenkins, beginning in his last few years at public school, sometime in the 1930s. The work is made up of 12 novels, and the three I have in this volume are A QUESTION OF UPBRINGING, A BUYER'S MARKET, and THE ACCEPTANCE WORLD. The first covers his school years, the next his first years out of school, and I can't tell you about the third one because I have given up on it.

I really want to like it, but I just can't. There are some interesting elements. It's quite involving to see how the First World War affected those just slightly too young to fight in it, and to see what daily life was like in that period. Occasionally, the author makes observations about human life and behaviour that are insightful and compelling. And yet, somehow, I just can't go on. For one thing, we know virtually nothing about the inner life of the first person narrator. I've never come across anything like that, and it's just bizarre. It gives the whole novel a kind of empty, unengaging feel. What we mostly learn about are his acquaintances (not even really his best friends) who he runs into an improbable number of times in his life. We learn a lot about people he doesn't have much strong feeling for and doesn't care about. Apparently, this is a major theme of the book: how people and issues recur across a lifetime, making patterns, and over the course of the remaining nine books, which will take us to the 1970s and his old age, it will all become clear, and presumably engaging. Sorry Mr Powell, I just can't make it.

Also, isn't the cover dire?

Thursday, 4 November 2010

THE REVERSAL by Michael Connelly

I had to read this one for work.

Blah blah child murder blah blah terse court room scenes blah blah divorced detective.

Can you believe this thing is a bestseller? And worse yet, like tenth in a series of bestsellers. Is everyone morons?

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

GoFugYourself.Com: GQ Photoshoot on Glee




This blog is supposed to be about everything I read in 2010. I have tried to be honest, even when the truth is embarrassing (eg. Carole Matthews). Even so, as I mainly cover books, a lot is left out: newspapers - magazines - internet crap. Ah, internet crap. Specifically, gofugyourself.com, which I read everyday. And I just had to promote their latest post, which I totally, totally agree with, about GQ's photoshoot on Glee.

In this photoshoot, actors famous for playing teens were photographed in embarrassingly sexualised ways. Look it up: it is totally unnecessary and exceptionally gross. What makes me especially mad is the fact that the boy gets to wear all his bloody clothes. You actually can't believe they are serious. Male gaze, much? Did feminism totally pass them by? Try looking up OBJECTIFICATION in the dictionary, bitches. Admittedly, all the actors are legal, but that is SO not what the shoot is about.

The photographer has had some complaints previously about his manipulation of young models. Perhaps a picture of him is worth a thousand words on this subject.

The New York Times is very interesting on this also.

It makes me totally mad.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

A MILLION LITTLE PIECES by James Frey


Everyone seems to love this book. Meanwhile, it's a bit crap.

It's all about James Frey's attempt to recover from drug and alcohol addiction. He wakes up on an airplane, with a huge hole in his cheek and missing teeth, and slowly realises he is being flown to his parents, who will put him in rehab. The book tracks his recovery, and his romance with a fellow patient. The cover is full of quotes from reviewers, apparently seriously misled. (Utterly compulsive" "heartbreaking memoir" etc. Maybe they are on crack too). It was also a bestseller.

True is not always interesting. I am sure recovering from drug addiction really sucks, and mostly you think "I hate my life" and "I want drugs" basically all day. As the subject of an entire book however these two thoughts get dull very quickly. Blah blah blah I need crack blah blah blah I have ruined my life blah blah blah I need vodka. You get the picture. It's only got one colour.

The best part was when he tells us all about how he had two root canals without anaesthetic or painkiller. He couldn't have drugs because of his addiction, so he just had two tennis balls to hold. He held them so hard he split his fingernails.

Hilariously, your friend and mine Wikipedia tells me that it has emerged that some of the book was invented. Frey apologized for fabricating portions of his book and for having made himself seem "tougher and more daring and more aggressive than in reality I was, or I am." He added, "People cope with adversity in many different ways, ways that are deeply personal. . . . My mistake . . . is writing about the person I created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who went through the experience." This does not surprise me. One very irritating aspect of the book is that he is constantly telling us how tough he is, and how he cows lesser men with his giant penis, (okay I exagerrate) etc etc. His publisher admitted that despite marketing the book as a memoir, and describing it as 'brutally honest' she had never had any section of it fact checked. Nice.

IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote


Capote was inspired to write this book by a 300 word article in the New York Times, which began: "Holcomb, Kan., Nov. 15 [1959] (UPI) -- A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged ... There were no signs of a struggle, and nothing had been stolen. The telephone lines had been cut." (Thanks Salon)

He went down to Holcomb, with his childhood friend (bizarrely: Harper Lee) to interview people, and spent the next six years working on a detailed account of the crime. It is widely credited as the first non-fiction novel, and as more or less inventing the true crime genre. This genre is disgustingly large and healthy now, of course, so the book seems a good deal less radical and remarkable now than it did then.

It's still however a gripping little story, with well drawn and compelling characters. What most appealed to me was the long sections of direct quotes. It was fascinating to see how ordinary people spoke in 1959. It's sort of insanely quaint. They all sound like they're in an Arthur Miller play all the time.

Friday, 8 October 2010

I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith


This is such a wonderful book, I don't even know what to do with myself. I began it on the train home from Bath in the evening, and suffice to say I finished it all before bed time. You know how it is when you look at the clock and it's 00:05, and then, ten minutes later it's 01:20? At that point, you're sleep schedules all fucked anyway, so you may as well just keep reading! Hurray! It was a total binge.
Though now, as with all the best binges, I'm sorry for it. Because now I have no more I CAPTURE THE CASTLE to read. The cover says: "I know of few novels - except Pride and Prejudice - that inspire as much fierce lifelong affection in their readers as I Capture the Castle." (Joanna Trollope) And I believe it. The first person I told about having read it practically chewed my arm off in delight, as she loves it too, and she told me it was recommended to her initially in an equally crazed fashion. I looked it up on Amazon, and it has a vast majority of 5 stars. Though three morons who need to smoke less crack gave it 1 star.

I CAPTURE THE CASTLE is written in journal format; and that that is successful is a major feat I think. It's a hard thing to do. That ghost story I read a few books ago was in that format, and it was sadly creaky: the hardy young explorer was bizarrely literary, and kept saying “I write this journal because xyz” in a not very believable way. I CAPTURE THE CASTLE is very successful in this respect. It's allegedly written by a seventeen year old girl, and not only is the voice itself charming, but, amazingly, it remains believable as she changes and grows over the course of the journal.

The girl, called Cassie, lives in a delipidated old castle with her sister and brother, her stepmother, and her father, who is struggling with his second decade of writers' block. As their father is not writing, they have almost no income, and while very middle class, are so poor as often to be underfed. The owner of the nearby manor home dies, and his estate passes into the hands of his American nephew Simon. Simon and his cousin Neil arrive, and the former falls wildly in love with Cassie's sister Rose. Rose is swept up in preparations for the wedding, and only slowly discovers that she does not in fact love her new fiance. In a quite unexpected twist, Cassie falls in love with him too, and this causes much upset. The book captures very well the sort of achingly painful love that is so common in adolesence and, thank god, not so very common afterwards.

There is much that is beautiful in the writing of this book: there's one bit, about a nightime swim in a moat, that is just gorgeous. There's a lovely capturing of English countryside too, and a real love of a certain English way of life. It makes me sad blogging about it because I've already read it, and there's no more left.

Monday, 4 October 2010

HANGOVER SQUARE by Patrick Hamilton


This is a fantastic little book. It's subtitled 'A story of darkest Earl's Court,' and is very much about the misery and anonymity of the big city. It's certainly not a book to read when you are feeling sick of London, as I am.

Sample: At one point, our protagonist is trying to warm up on a cold day in front of a miserable gas fire. Comments the author, in probably my favourite line of the entire book: “To those whom God has forsaken, is given a gas-fire in Earl's Court” You said it, baby.

HANGOVER SQUARE tells the story of one Harvey Bone, who is a sweet and slightly simple young man living in Earl's Court. The year is very specifically 1939, and the war hangs over the entire book. Bone is very lonely, and conceives an obsessive love for one Netta Langdon. She is thoroughly nasty to him, but he hangs onto the edge of her hard drinking social group. Occasionally, Bone hears what is described as a click in his head, and suddenly the world becomes a bit silent and vacant, and he moves as if in a dream. During these periods, he plans to kill Netta. When his head clicks back, he cannot remember these 'dead' periods at all. Bone is a thoroughly symmpathetic character, and the book reels you in by continually keeping you in hope that he will come right. He keeps trying to give up drinking, and planning to move out of the city to the countryside, both of which, it is suggested, might yet save him. Eventually, in a particularly bad period, he does kill Netta, and on her friends, and then covers the apartment in lengths of thread, so the crime scene will not be touched by the police. Shortly afterwards, he kills himself. He had been looking after a stray cat, and his suicide note is mostly about making sure the cat is looked after. It is sad.

Hamilton is a bit naughty, as he really makes you hate Netta. I have to admit its a tiny bit mysoginist. Apparently 'her thoughts resembled those of a fish – something seen floating in a tank, brooding, self-absorbed, frigid . . . she had been born, apparently, without any natural predilection towards thought or action . . .' You get the picture. You seriously totally don't care when she gets drowned in her bath.

JB Priestly in the introduction makes the excellent point that Hamilton is one of the first writers to really deal with the way one can be homeless in a big city – homeless in the sense of anonymous, and without any kind of community – just floating. Let me just quote you one other little bit! Speaking of a young man: “For he was alone in London for the fist time, and at an age when the external world generally bears a totally differnet aspect from the one it bears to its more battered and jaundiced inhabitants – at an age, indeed, where even the scenery of SW7 might be associated with the beginning of life rather than the end of all hope, and its streets and people charged with a remarkable mystery and romance of their own.”

Fantastic.

DARK MATTER by Michelle Paver

I needed to read this for a job I have. It is a ghost story, and a pretty successful one, judging by the fact that I had to sleep with the lights on for three days after. Either it's pretty good or I'm a pretty big wuss. It's about an expedition in the 1930s to the Arctic. Once the sun disappears entirely for the winter, they start seeing a man who walks the shore near their cabin. Nothing much more than that happens, there's not much gore, but it's still impressively scary.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT by Jeanette Winterson


This book begins charmingly. It is unpretentious and seemingly honest; and rather sweet. It's about a little girl growing up with an exceedingly religious mother. As she grows, the little girl begins to realise she is a lesbian, with predictable results as respects the mother.

It seems quite a common or garden coming out story to me, but I think at the time it was very new subject matter. Thus the fame?

It all goes a bit wrong at the end, for me anyway, when she starts inserting sections of a rather naff and quite fakey fairy tale into the story.

I sort of love the introduction. Many thanks for typing out this extract to A Literal Girl Blog

“Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was written during the winter of 1983 and the spring of 1984. I was 24. At that time I was sharing two rooms and a hip bath with the actress Vicky Licorish. She had no money, I had no money, we could not afford the luxury of a separate whites wash and so were thankful of the fashion for coloured knickers which allowed those garments most closely associated with our self-esteem, not to be grey. Dinginess is death to a writer…the damp small confines of the mediocre and the gradual corrosion of beauty and light, the compromising and the settling; these things make good work impossible. When Keats was depressed he put on a clean shirt. When Radclyffe Hall was oppressed she ordered new sets of silk underwear from Jermyn Street. Byron, as we all know, allowed only the softest, purest and whitest next to his heroic skin, and I am a great admirer of Byron. So it seemed to me in those days of no money, no job, no prospects and a determined dinginess creeping up from the lower floors of our rooming house, that there had to be a centre, a talisman, a fetish even, that secured order where there seemed to be none; dressing for dinner every night in the jungle, or the men who polished their boots to a hard shine before wading the waters of Gallipoli. To do something large and to do it well demands such observances, personal and peculiar, laughable as they often are, because they stave off that dinginess of soul that says that everything is small and grubby and nothing is really worth the effort.”

Friday, 1 October 2010

PIED PIPER by Nevil Shute


My cousin gave me this to read on the plane last week. I was glad to see it. I've only ever read one other Shute - when I was about fourteen - ON THE BEACH, which made a really big impact on me (in the way things do much more often at fourteen than at thirty three). Essentially, it tells the story of a bunch of people waiting on a beach in Australia for the nuclear cloud that has obliterated the rest of the world to float towards them. I loved it. So much so, that I'm scared to re-read it in case I don't love it anymore. Anyway, PIED PIPER makes me feel I could go back to the BEACH, because I really like it too.

It tells the story of an elderly British man who decides to go to France for a spot of fishing. Not too much to make a novel out of there, except that the year is 1940, and Germany is very much on the move. Once he's been there for a little while, it begins to look more likely that France will fall, the man decides to leave for London, and another guest at the hotel asks him to take their children (aged 5 and 8) with him. He agrees, thinking that this will entail simply a train ride to the coast, and then the ferry – a journey of less than 24 hours.

Unfortunately, on the way, one of the children becomes ill, so they are forced to wait in a hotel. By the time they can leave they are having to constantly change their travel plans, as word reaches them of this or that train or port shutting down as the Germans advance. You get very much the sense of what it would really have been like to be in France at this time: everything is based on rumours and surmise, and no one thinks for a minute that Paris will actually fall, until it really does. Eventually, he is reduced to walking with the children, while the roads are machinegunned, and attempting to keep his nationality a secret to avoid arrest and internment by the Germans. As they proceed, they pick up other lost or abandoned children on the way, till he eventually is looking after five children.

We learn that the reason he chose such an odd time to go on a French holiday was because his son was killed in the very early days of the war, and he spends much of the book trying to come to terms with the loss. He does eventually get all the children to safety, and, in a beautifully handled parallel arc, comes to accept the death of his own child.

This is a cleanly and intelligently written page turner with lots of heart. It kept me up till 3am finishing it, which I do not think was just the jetlag.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

JOY IN THE MORNING by PG Wodehouse


I've been meaning to read some Wodehouse for ages, and this was it: JOY IN THE MORNING.

It is the fourth of Wodehouse's eleven wildly popular Jeeves and Wooster stories. Bertie Wooster is a dim but wealthy gentleman living in London in the 1930s. Jeeves is his butler, who is very much the brains of the operation, and is constantly having to get Wooster out of what I can only describe as - this being a nineteen thirties comic novel - scrapes. In JOY IN THE MORNING, Bertie has to go down to Steeple Bumpleigh, the home of his terrifying aunt, to help his friend secure the hand of the girl he loves. There's all sorts of hijinks (I use the word advisedly), involving explosions, fancy dress balls, boy scouts and drunken uncles, and eventually Jeeves saves the day.

In general, I love these establishment English Lit figures. This is no doubt because I have been so colonized mentally, and Bob Marley would be ashamed of me. Thus, I expected to love Wodehouse. I'm really sorry to say that this is not the case. It all seemed horribly overwritten - every sentence was crammed to the brim with ironic, slangy language; and the comic idea (idiot rich man, clever servant) seemed rather old hat. It might only seem old hat now of course, because Wodehouse was the milliner who first made this particular hat, and now we've seen it repeated over and over.

So perhaps while it does appear derivative, it is only derivative of itself. Whatever. I was bored.

As a side point, JOY IN THE MORNING alludes to Psalm 30:5: "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning." Which I think is rather lovely. And interesingly, the title has actually been used for two other novels. You must just read the write-up for the 1950s one below, especially if you want to barf:

"In Brooklyn, New York, in 1927, Carl Brown and Annie McGairy meet and fall in love. Though only eighteen, Annie travels alone to the Midwestern university where Carl is studying law to marry him. Little did they know how difficult their first year of marriage would be, in a faraway place with little money and few friends. But Carl and Annie come to realize that the struggles and uncertainty of poverty and hardship can be overcome by the strength of a loving, loyal relationship. An unsentimental yet uplifting story, Joy in the Morning is a timeless and radiant novel of marriage and young love."

Barf.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

FREE FOR FOR MILLIONAIRES by Min Jin Lee


This is the story of one Casey Han. Her parents moved from Korea to America to escape the troubles there in the aftermath of the war, and have provided her with a solid upbringing in Queens. She received a scholarship to Princeton, and the story tells of her attempts to find a job and a happy relationship as she grows into her twenties.

It's enjoyably Victorian, which a giant cast and lots of interweaving plots, and maintains your interest, if not your sympathy, throughout. The main character is always re-reading MIDDLEMARCH, and I will eat my bra (and its got a LOT of underwire) if the author is not a great lover of the Victorians.

Actually, I've often noticed that immigrants are fond of the Victorian style (another example is Vikram Seth's A SUITABLE BOY, the first book of this blog), and you may not be surprised to learn that I've got a theory about it. It's this. Ready?

Now, you can't play variations on a theme until you know what the theme is. Or: you can't remix a track that doesn't exist. European and American writers can have a fine compempt for narrative, and for character; they can mix it up and spit it out all they like, because the basic narratives in which they live have all been formed already. Thus they can mix and remix. They can be modern, and post-modern, and tear the Victorian novel apart, because they already have the Victorian novel. A lot of people from outside this tradition, however, have never really had their stories told. Thus, they need plot, and character, so their grandchildren can rip them all up. They need to write their own Victorian novels.

It's kind of the same thing with modern art. You can't mess with the visual world until you've agreed what the world looks like.

I can't think that I've ever read a book as absolutely immersed in consumer culture as this one is. Casey has a bizarre sense that the world has somehow treated her unfairly, because she is not as wealthy as some of her fellow students at Princeton. She honestly seems to consider herself poor, and, also bizarrely, the author seems to agree with this anaylsis. This is a book in which not being able to afford 500 count Egyptian cotton sheets is regarded as being a genuinely difficult thing, for which Casey deserves sympathy. It makes it a little hard to relate to.

Eventually, Casey decides to go to business school (irritatingly referred to as B school throughout), and the world of business is written about with such familiarity that I think I learn a little something about the author's background, and about why the absence of 500 count sheets might be perceived as such a problem.

I just googled her, and if you look here you'll see I won't be needing to eat my bra.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

CHARITY GIRL By Georgette Heyer


Georgette Heyer is an author of historical romances, usually set in the Regency period. Her novels are comic and well-plotted, and remind one for obvious reasons of Jane Austen. They don't remind one too much however, as Austen is a great writer, while poor Heyer is more in the trying hard department. But! She's charming and fun, and I loved her when I was in my early teens, so I was quite pleased to find her in another camping site's book exchange.

It was a tiny bit of a letdown. It's still funny and sweet, but I'm afraid my 33 year old self can see that it's also horribly overwritten, and rather cynically plotted. Also, I don't think anybody in any period speaks with quite as much period detail as her characters do. For example: I should like to know ma'am, what the dev – deuce – you mean by setting the servants to spy on me? By God, I think it beats the Dutch! I'll say what I dashed well choose” etc etc and etc.

She was on the best-seller lists consistently from when she was seventeen though, for which I give her mad props. Note that CHARITY GIRL was first published in 1970, and my copy is the ninth edition, published 1981 (charmingly, it's price was £1.50)

Apprently she was quite contemptuous of what she did, which I find rather sad. In 1943, speaking of a new novel of hers she said: "Spread the glad tidings that it will not disappoint Miss Heyer's many admirers. Judging from the letters I've received from obviously feeble-minded persons who do so wish I would write another These Old Shades, it ought to sell like hot cakes. I think myself I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense, but it's questionably good escapist literature and I think I should rather like it if I were sitting in an air-raid shelter, or recovering from flu. Its period detail is good; my husband says it's witty---and without going to these lengths, I will say that it is very good fun." More here.

IT'S NOW OR NEVER by Carole Matthews


As you can see from this little beauty, things were not going well in the finding books to read while camping department. This one I found at one of those book swap things they have at campsites. I think the cover is trying to let me know that this is chick lit.

There are a pair of twin sisters, one trapped in a dull marriage, one in a painful affair with a married man, who decide to change their lives. They are inspired to do so by attending the birthday party of their older and more successful sister. You will not be amazed to learn that they succeed.

It was okay, in sort of a dumb way.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO by Stieg Larsson


Yes, this is the piece of crap I bought for 12 euros and read in 2 days because I was so desparate for some fiction. The protagonist is a journalist (as the author was) who reads a lot of murder mysteries (as I suspect the author of this murder mystery did) and has lots of beautiful women who want to have sex with him all the time (think not, if his picture on the backflap is anything to go by). I don't know if you really need to know the plot, as I suspect you already know it, due to it being the plot of all these books. I'll give you the highlights: loose cannon investigator blah blah serial killer blah blah it gets personal blah blah killer is one you least suspect. So it was pretty blah, BUT immensely page-turning. No denying it. I also enjoyed the way it was so thoroughly set in Sweden, so they were constantly eating foul fish dishes and putting on thick jumpers.

One thing that made me REALLY MAD was the inclusion of an entirely unecessary and very sadistic rape scene. I've had this before with other books, where you are reading along quite comfortably, and all of a sudden you are like: ah. I see this book was written by a man. And a certain kind of man, too. I don't mean he is a sadistic rapist, but rather that he is clearly someone who comfortably participates in that strand of our culture that eroticises female pain. I'm not saying these sorts of scenes are never acceptable: of course they are, if they are central to the plot or important to the book's theme. But it's incredible how often they are just sort of chucked in there. And I think the reason they are is that they give the writer, and some of the readers, a distinct thrill. Nice. Really nice.

A brilliant example of this is some stupid book I read, the title of which I can't remember. It's set in post Civil War America, which I am sure was a dark time for many people – eg, recently empancipated black people, traumatised white soldiers, etc etc. You'd never know it from this book, which is pretty much one long rape scene, written with precisely detailed excitement. What's incredible, is that this piece of nonsense won the Pulitzer. Honestly, these people ought to phone their moms to apologize.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

THE END OF POVERTY by Jeffery Sachs


My title should perhaps also include: FOREWORD by Bono. Which, based on the cover, the publishers think is apparently as important a feature as the book itself. I didn't bother with the it, though. Partly on principle. That principle being - Dude: how much contempt do the publishers have for us? They're all like: these morons will be totally excited by two pages from a celebrity.

Anyway, Jeffery Sachs is a famous economist, who was given tenure at Harvard at 28 (a fact he is not at all embarrassed to highlight for us on about page 3). He believes, or claims to believe for the rhetorical joy of it, that poverty can be ended in our lifetime, and in this book attempts to explain how. Okay, I have to confess, I can't tell you more about it right now, as I haven't finished it yet. I took it camping with me, and it was all too much for me. I discovered, to my shame, that apparently I can't live without fiction. Sweet, sweet, fiction. Which is how I ended up paying 12 euros for a piece of crap, which I did finish, in a shameful two days, which I'll tell you about next.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

ELEGY FOR EASTERLY by Petina Gappah


This collection of short stories won the Guardian First Book Award recently. One can't help but feel proud of a Zimbabwean girl flying the flag high!

I actually read my first of her stories when it was in the Guardian in 2009. It was set in the Mabelreign OK, which was very weird, as that's the supermarket that I grew up going to with my parents (every Saturday, without fail, same till, same packing guy, etc, etc, my parents are like that). On a side note, I've probably never interacted with a piece of art set specifically somewhere I know in my life before, so that was notable for me. It was a sweet and sad story about a meeting with an old teacher.

I enjoyed the book itself, especially "Something Nice From London", about trying to get a body back from the UK, and "The Annexe Shuffle" about a UZ student who was briefly interned in a mental institution. I think Ms Gappah's at her best when she's writing about middle class life (perhaps because that's the world she grew up in?) and a bit more unsteady when dealing with people outside that world. The class gap in Zim is truly immense.

I also thought there was something peculiarly and charmingly Zimbabwean about her light-hearted and cheerful handling of the country's serious problems. I was once told by a theatre's artistic director (who shall remain nameless) that a Zim project I was working on was 'too cheerful.' Apparently, for some, Zimbabwean stories must always be stories of misery. English people can laugh and be silly, but we Africans are all tragic figures apparently.

What nonsense. Zim couldn't stagger on if Zimbabweans did not have a strange ability to keep their chins up (if only to stop the water closing over their heads . . .)

Petina Gappah's blog is great too. Here it is.

MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR by William Shakespeare


This should maybe read "Merry Wives of Windsor" x 10,0000000. This isbecause this is the show I have been working on. It is a great show, and a very well cut version of the play. Here's the link if you're interested.

Now you may have thought by my absense from this blog, I had forgotten about it. Oh no. I have just been camping around Europe, which means I have had a lot of rain and mud and fun, but not very much internet access. It also means that reading material has been thin on the ground, so I have been reading some shocking crap. It's going to be a new low in 2010's reading, but the high moral standards of this blog forbid me to leave anything out.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS by James Fenimore Cooper


Well, this one is a doozy. I am sorry I could not find you an electronic image of the cover of my edition. It shows the Native American fighting the British guy, and for some reason the wind is blowing up the former's loin cloth so you can see his butt. Full on, dead centre, a big butt, in the middle of the cover. It is very strange. Very strange. What is that supposed to mean? Borderline gayness combined with borderline racism? Actually, possibly this is also a good strapline for this whole book.

Basically, there are these two British girls and this British guy who is protecting them. They are betrayed by their evil Indian guide(!), Magua. They are then saved by the good Indians(!), a young one (Uncas), his dad, and this other white guy (whose always going on about how he is a man 'without a cross') who has been totally absorbed into the Native American lifestyle (thus he has to tell us all the time about his lack of cross). I can see why they made this book into an action movie, because it is just action sequence after action sequence after action sequence, enlivened by a bit of romance and some stupid disguises.

I don't know which is more racist in its portrayal, the evil Indians or the good Indians. At first I was thinking, wow, way to write to the stereotype; but then I read on the internet that I guess Cooper's book was actually a huge part of what created the stereotype. Interesting. There's lots of 'savage' this, and 'uncivilized' that. But on the other hand, when Uncas dies, his father is mostly comforted by the white guy (WITHOUT a cross, let's emphasize) who says how they serve the same god and will run on the same paths on the happy hunting grounds, which is sweet. And I guess at the time Cooper wrote it, a lot of people thought he was too kind to the Native Americans, because he often writes in admiration of their fortitude, courage etc etc. So, obviously, let's not judge him by our standards.

Let's not even get into the women, because its a close run thing as to whether it's more sexist than it is racist. And we are not judging him by our standards.

We're fairly lucky I can even tell you this much about it, as I almost gave up on page 17. This guy is some WORDY. And we know I like wordy, but this was almost too wordy even for me. Check it out: "Receiving no reply to this extraordinary appeal, which, in truth, as it was delivered with the vigour of full and sonorous tones, merited some sort of notice, he who had thus sung forth the language of the holy book, turned to the silent figure to whom he had unwittingly addressed himself, and found a new and more powerful subject of admiration in the object that encountered his gaze." Ye gods. I kept going, but I almost gave up again when instead of cooking he referred to "undergoing the culinary process."

Onwards and upwards. (In which series of childrens books is this an important phrase, at least in the last book? Extra points if you know)

Sunday, 1 August 2010

FAST FOOD NATION by Eric Schlosser


After all that 19th century morality I thought it was time for 20th century immorality. FAST FOOD NATION provides that in spades. Spades of offal, eyeballs, fat, salt, animal cruelty and poor working conditions for illegal immigrants.

This book is about the way in which fast food has shaped global culture. He begins by discussing the genesis of fast food as we know it. Apparently, it arose in Southern California, a place built very much around the motor car. There were lots of places selling burgers and so on, but it was all cooked from scratch by experienced cooks, with waitresses on hand. Then the McDonald's brothers - who were sick of their teenage clientele, apparently, who came mostly for the young pretty waitresses - came up with a new system, based on the production line concept. They cut their menu to only those things that could be eaten without a plate or cultery, and simplifed the food preparation process so that no experience was necessary - each worker just did one simple part of preparation, so experienced short order cooks were no longer necessary. They were thus able to massively cut prices, and business boomed. Apparently this was the first time working class people could afford to eat in a 'restaurant.' Other people copied, and the idea spread. The McDonalds - now this is heartening - after they got really really rich, weren't interested in getting any richer. So they weren't looking to expand. But this other guy, Ray Kroc, convinced them to let him franchise for them. And that's the real birth of the chain. He always said he wasn't in the food business, but in show business - interesting, no? Anyway, he always resented doing what he perceived as all the work, and was eventually delighted to buy them out, and in the end force the closure of their last restaurant (now called M) by opening a McDonald's up the road.

Interestingly, practically every big fast food chain was started by a high school drop out.

The book also talked about how fast food restaurants market primarily to children, especially toddlers. 25% of Americans eat fast food in any one day, and 90% of American children under 9 visit a McDonalds in any one month. Oh yes. It's not good news. I in 8 Americans has actually worked for McDonalds at some point.

Also, something I never knew is that fast food in itself is made to be bland, as the flavour actually comes for added chemicals - just a few drops, that are carefully controlled. Most of the flavour in all fast food is made in New Jersey, apparently.

Obviously, the treatment of the animals is not great. But it's actually getting better. However, the treatment of the people who work in meat packing is APPALING. That was really depressing. Lots of exploiting illegal immigrants etc. The treatment of the kids (the majority of workers are under 19) who work in the restaurants is not brilliant either. McDonalds works hard to fight unions, and sends in crack teams to stop any incipient unionizing. Not a single US restaurant is unionised. WOW.

One interesting thing was how much these big corporations, that drivel on about the free market, and competition, etc etc, are happy to take government handouts. Lots of franchises are begun with money from the fund meant to help small businesses. In fact, big corporations use it when they're not sure an area can stand another Burger King or whatever, as they know the government will just take the loss. Also, they've worked hard to make sure franchisees have none of the normal consumer protections -eg, they corporations can cancel the contract at any time; they can limit who you can sell it too; they can make you use their suppliers, no matter what the cost, etc etc.

And yet, I have to tell you that all this talk about french fries made me want to eat french fires. What does this mean?

Friday, 30 July 2010

THE LAST CHRONICLE OF BARSET by Anthony Trollope


After SMALL HOUSE I decided I just couldn't face life without Trollope, so the binge contined. This is the last of the series of six Barset novels. Now, I'm kind of sorry the series is over, but let's face it: this isn't Austen, who only wrote like 6 books total. This is Trollope, and this guy isn't kidding. He wrote more words than any other English novellist. After this Barchester series, there's the Palliser series, which some people tell me are even better, and then tons of individual novels. So I could read like mad without any fear of running out.

I could, but I'm not. I'm taking a break. I'm Trolloped out. All that order, and morality. Anyway, let's talk about it real quick. This book focuses on a minor character who has appeared in previous books, Mr Crawley. He is a low paid curate with a wife and a ton of children, who he can sometimes barely feed. He cashes a cheque which it later emerges was lost by someone else. Mr Crawley can't account for how he came by the cheque. Thus, he's accused of theft (terrible for a clergyman) and has to face the magistrates. He suffers terribly, because he is a intelligent and dedicated man, but so bitter about how unlucky he's been that he is a tiny bit bonkers. He refuses to take help, of any kind, which is VERY irritating for the reader. He even refuses to have a lawyer. Eventually, we find it was all a mix up and he is innocent. Which means his beautiful but poor daughter can accept her wealthy lover as a husband. (Trollope loves poor girls and rich boys getting together, I'm realising).

The person who reveals the mixup is Johnny, who we've met in previous novels. He is in love with Lily Dale, who refuses to marry him. It's not clear, even to Lily, if she does this because she does not love him enough, or because she is still so scarred by being jilted (as she was in SMALL HOUSE). We also meet the man who jilted her, Crosbie, once again, and find he is suitably miserable. I thought for sure when Johnny and Lily came back in this book it was because Trollope was going to put us out of our misery and GET THEM TOGHETHER. Oh no. They just randomly DON'T GET TOGETHER. Goddamn 1400 pages later, they DON'T GET TOGETHER. What the hell?!! I am bitter.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

THE SMALL HOUSE AT ALLINGTON by Anthony Trollope

Yes, I'm on a massive Trollope kick. There's no denying it. He's just orderly. His world is rational. I LOVE it. I specifically saved this book for a long plane ride I had, and it was awesome. It's just amazing how a book with a strong plot can erase an airport, annoying seat mate, etc etc. Not that I also didn't watch 3 movies (Dear John - AVOID!, Remember Me - Robert Pattison and 9/11 - nuff said; and Green Zone - MOSTLY AVOID!) Anyway, in the small house at Allington lives a young lady called Lily Dale, apparently one of Trollope's best loved heroines. Her cousin brings a young man Mr Crosbie down to stay, and the two fall in love. He asks her to marry him and she accepts.

This is usually where most Trollope novels end, but with this one our problems are only just beginning. Mr Crosbie is much admired at the Civil Service, where he works, and uses his small income to impress. He realises that if he gets married he'll be trapped in a small house with babies and have hardly any income at all. A very modern worry really. So like two weeks later he asks this titled lady he's known for some time to marry him instead. She also doesn't have much money, but he thinks a titled connection will be good for his career, and he likes her well enough. She's been on the market 14 years, so decides to cut her losses and accept.

Lily is made totally miserable by this desertion. Interestingly, so is Crosbie. He finds he has nothing in common with his new wife, and is expected to keep up a way of life way beyond his income. In addition, his social circle are not impressed with him for jilting Lily. He gets attacked at a train station by one John Eames, who is in love with Lily, and wants to avenge her. He asks Lily to marry him, and she refuses, saying she is married to Crosbie in her heart. Which is a bit bizarre.

What I loved about this book was the writing style (smooth as butter!), the dilemma of Crosbie (it was very interesting to see someone make personal calculations of that kind) and of course meeting people from the other novels in the series. It's like coming across a different period in your life, quite unexpectedly, because I read some of these novels ages ago.

Last: did you know Trollope wrote every day for three hours, without fail? 250 words every 15 minutes, and he said he didn't understand all the agonising and wall staring; it's just discipline. He said he attributed his whole success in life to the discipline of early hours. Let's put that in our lazy pipes and smoke it.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

CIDER WITH ROSIE by Laurie Lee


This is an apparently quite famous memoir of a childhood spent in the Cotswolds immediately after the First World War. This guy is one of the youngest in a family of eight. His father has taken a job in town, and never comes to the country, simply sending money (and not exactly tons of it) to his wife to look after the children. Not all of them are hers; some are his from a previous marriage. But luckily for him he is not too bothered by any of them.

The book is quite poetic in style, and evokes quite beautifully the country life. It's also quite interesting from a historic point of view. On the one hand, everyone seems very happy, in a sort of wasn't village life wonderful kind of way, but then on the other hand people keep killing themselves. So that was weird.

Anyway, it was a good book I guess and has sold 6 million copies but it didn't do much for me.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

GLOBALIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS by Joseph E Stiglitz


This book could also be called WHY I FUCKING HATE THE IMF by Joseph E Stiglitz. This guy but really hates the IMF. He goes through various economic crises – the East Asian one of the 90s, and the end of Communisum in Eastern Europe being the main ones, and castigates the Fund's mindset, policies and practices. In short, there's nothing he doesn't fucking hate about the IMF.

Basically, the Fund was set up to ensure that if any country got into deep economic trouble, there would be a body that existed to help it out. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, it was found that government spending helped resuscitate the economy. I guess that's kind of Economics 101. The Fund was supposed to help countries stay stable, and when they weren't, help them out.

According to Stiglitz, the IMF was run by fundamentalist free market thinkers. Thus, their definition of what was best for a country was always less government, no matter what the circumstances. This worked well when the Fund dealt with some South American countries, which had massive governments and bloated budgets, but not so well in many other countries, especially when their economies were having a downturn. They'd insist on less government, and less government spending, which tended to make everything worse. They'd also try and prop up the exchange rate through billions in loans (which the residents of say, Indonesia, had to pay back in the end). However, they'd somehow only manage to prop it up for long enough for foreign banks and local fat cats to get their money out and then the whole place would fall apart, with the poorest hardest hit.

So anyway, the problem I have is that I don't much about economics, and he doesn't present the opposite view, so I've no idea how right he is. I have to say, it sounds pretty right to me. One thing he points out is that most of the people who run the IMF are from a very small group – finance ministers and bankers, who all tend to have very similar ideas about what is best. Apparently it's common to go from the IMF right to a major global bank and back again. I mean, even if you're not a monster or whatever, it's clear whose interests you'll be serving. Certainly not the starving village guy in Indonesia. And despite the IMF being a public institution, there's not much accountability to any public, or much public debate. Thus, while a guy in a village in Indonesia is paying, for sure, he doesn't have a say.

THE PRIVATE MEMOIRS AND CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER by James Hogg

The first appeal of this book is that the author was an eighteenth century shepherd who taught himself to read. It’s not so often that the ...