Wednesday, 24 March 2010

DR THORNE by Anthony Trollope


Honestly, massive props to gutenberg.net. I don't know how anyone gets through their workday without it. DR THORNE has been keeping me company many a long day. Here's where I first blogged about it ages ago, and I've finally finished it. I ran out of stuff to read on the train, so I finished it on the tiny screen of my mobile, to the not very Victorian, but very tinny, music coming from some moron's i-pod.

The props go direct to the guy in the picture, who dreamed Gutenberg up in 1971.

DR THORNE tells the story of a young lady, neice of Dr Thorne, who is illegitimate and poor. A young man of good family falls in love with her, but obviously his whole family opposes the romance, as his estate is in debt because of his father's extravagance, and he ought to marry money. Surprise, surprise, Mary is found to be a heiress and all ends happily.

This sounds thoroughly lame, but the charm of the book lies not in its plot. It's the warmth of the narrator's voice - if you've lived in England, you can't help but love "Let no man boast himself that he has got through the perils of winter till at least the seventh of May." It's also the loving way the characters are presented. Note that the book is called Dr Thorne, but not because the story if about him, or because he's the narrator, but just because Trollope likes him. That's the kind of book it is.

Here it is. I recommend beginning immediately.

I am off to Zimbabwe for three months, so I've ordered a ton of books. DR THORNE is the third of the Barchester novels (I've also read the first two) and please don't doubt I've ordered the remaining three. It will be very Victorian, as Zim has non-stop power cuts at the minute so I am sure I will read a lot of them by candlelight . . .

Monday, 22 March 2010

THE KINDLY ONES by Jonathan Littell


I actually read this last year, but I found out at the great blog Reading Matters that it's been nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which is for translated literature.

It's an epic (very epic, like 900 pages of epic) story of a bureaucrat's involvement in the Holocaust. I think the author (an American writing in French, impressively) intended to show how we are all potential Nazis, and he succeeds sort of. He definitely succeeds in writing an interesting, revealing, well researched novel of WWII. I learnt, which I thought was very interesting, that far more people died through mass shootings in the area of the old Soviet Union than died in the camps.

You probably don't need to be warned that some parts are a bit grim.

There's some interesting things going on narratively, because as the novel goes on it becomes increasingly clear that he's not quite sure what it is he's telling us. For example, he goes to sleep, and when he wakes up, his parents have been murdered and are covered in blood. He's naked and the clothing he was wearing has been washed. Hmmm. There's also some very unfortunate sexual self-abuse incidents. These I skipped.

Totally recommend it though

(The Observer's review here is interesting)

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Friday, 19 March 2010

STARLINGS LAUGHING by June Vendall Clark - Cont'd


Well, I've finished it. And I'm quite thoroughly confused.

This husband, who was apparently so horrible to her, she divorced him and then when he asked her to, and not very nicely either, she remarried him. What? Then they got divorced again. Also, none of her three children seem to speak to her. What? How did we get there? I really can't figure this lady's personal life out. Suffice to say, it is wild. Almost as wild as the wildlife.

But the parts about the African landscape are very interesting, as are her attempts to set up a game reserve. She reads like an old colonial, but her reserve was apparently incredibly forward thinking - not just for its time, but for our time too, as it involved the local community; see here

After the acrimoious divorce, she keeps bleating about wanting to go back home to England. Bizarre, as this was a place that by my calculations she'd maybe spent 6 months in her whole life in. I guess as all the cultural life came from there, she felt that - despite it having nothing to do with her actual real life - that was home. Interesting that culture is actually a stronger predictor of 'home' than mere circumstance. ANYWAY. I just want to say, she moved to Norwich. This is a woman who used to chew up and spit up ground up doves for her orphan civet cat. Whole doves. With their feathers on. Yup. Her pet lion once mauled her son and she cheerily pumped him with the vet's antibiotics. NORWICH.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

COMMENT: Emily Woof in the Guardian Review

Further to our conversation yesterday about motherhood and how central or not it is to our essential experience, see here

Clearly, it's written out of a belief that birth and motherhood are fundamental, defining experiences. Now, that's kind of what I think too. But it's interesting to see, given the Vendall Clark I'm reading, that other cultures clearly haven't viewed it that way.

It's rare that to get a chance to suddenly see the facts of your life as possibly just pre-conceptions.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

STARLINGS LAUGHING by June Vendall Clark


I bet there aren't too many blogging on this one.

I've had this in my bookcase for a while; it belonged to a friend of my father's, who was forced to leave Zimbabwe during the Gukurahundi (if you don't know what this is you really ought to Google it), lived in Darfur for a while, setting up schools (most of which were burnt down in the recent events there - definitely Google that if you don't know what that's about) and then had to move to London as he badly needed the NHS, due to an incident with a stomach virus and some vets. He spent the rest of his life in a tiny flat, a fine example of living in a way above and beyond your circumstances: books, newspapers, music, his flat was as big as the world mentally, for sure.

ANYWAY. I still didn't really want to read this soppy "Memoir of Africa," (that's it's very dodgy subtitle). I just had it because it had his name in it in his rather charming old school hand. Anyway, I was too hungry to lug my ass to the Library, so I needed someething to read and had a look through the bookcase. I thought it would probably be kind of racist, and full of weird issues about being 'British' in this exotic land, even though she's lived in Africa since she was four, so how it's exotic I'm not clear. So I thought that was how it would be and I wouldn't like it, but what do you know, that is how it is and I kind of like it!

Actually, it's not very racist; it's problematic by our standards, but it's very clear from her description of her life that she was far more liberal than anyone she knew. She was in Bulawayo from the age of four, and we learn all about her WWI veteran father, and her parents' horribly bad marriage, and her weird childhood; she wasn't allowed to play with white children in case she lost her upper class accent. She got pregnant at 16 by the first man she kissed. This being the 1940s, she had to marry him and went on to have 25 years of misery. They founded a farm in Matopos, and have moved to camp in the middle of the Okavango Delta - that's where I am now.

The book is firstly interesting, and quite charming, for her clear love of the African landscape, and, in a strange and mixed up way, her love of African people. It's full of vervet monkeys getting into the chicken coop and throwing eggs at each other and at the chickens, of chats that fly into her bedroom in the morning and wait to have some of her toast, of sunset over the granite hills and so on. She spoke fluent Ndebele, and knew a great deal of the culture and wife of life of these people - she even knew a man who'd fought in Lobengula's impi (Google also).

It's also interesting as a view into her community and the ideals of her time. She's totally not bothered to tell us she never got on with her mother: no remorse, no bitterness, and even better, no psychologising. Very not modern. I love it. Apparently once her mother was moaning about something, and our author told her not to, and the mother replied, with pride "But I've always been a grouser. I've always been a moaner." This is too much for our author.

It's more or less a biography, but fabulously also she spends little time on her children. Love it. You certainly get the impression that the farm and the landscape were of far more interest to her than her children, and, incredibly interstingly, she feels no societal pressure to pretend it isn't so. She gets pregnant for the third time, and is with good reason too scared to get a backstreet abortion, so goes through with it, and refers to it quite frankly as a little wretch.

Also, there's lot of sex and naked dinner parties, which goes very oddly with the fact that she felt she couldn't get a divorce. I'm not quite following. More when it's finished.

Monday, 15 March 2010

THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS by Kiran Desai


This was a fantastic book. Hilariously, I've been studiously avoiding it up till now, when my boyfriend got it out the Library for me randomly. I avoided it because a) I see she has a mother who is a successful author (3 times nominated for the Booker herself). This is always a bad sign, shades of Martin Amis - how did she get published, how (puke) literary is it? and b) It's all about migrants, and I feared it would be a bit of a politically correct misery memoir. I'm a migrant myself and I don't really need to read about the misery.

But meanwhile, back at the ranch, much to the delight of my boyfriend, as I rolled my eyes when he brought it home, it's fabulous. It tells two stories, more or less, one of Sai, who is a teenage orphan girl living in the Himalays with her distant wealthy grandfather, and the second of Biju, who is Sai's grandfather's cook's son, and an illegal immigrant in New York. Sai falls in love with her lower class maths tutor, who abandons her when he gets taken up by the movement for Gurka indepedence, which movement severely threaten Sai's lifestyle. The demonstrators take land and possessions from the rich, and open Sai's eyes to the economic world she's living in. Meanwhile, Biju is scraping by in New York, wondering why so many Indians try and move to the US. He's making very little money, and feels a host of complicated feelings about what he's lost in leaving his home and family. Eventually he decides to return to the Himalayas, just as the political unrest means his home area is entirely shut off. He manages to get a ride, only to be robbed of all his belongings, his clothing, and his hard earned savings. He eventually makes it back to his father, barefoot in a borrowed dressing gown.

So what did I so much like about this book? It's hard to say. First, it dealt with some very complex emotions and ideas in an accessible way. The question of what it means to move, of what it mean to belong, in this globalised world (blah blah blah) are immensely complicated, and as they really effect only a very small proportion of the world's writers, are very rarely written about with any understanding or intelligence. This thing - of being a new kind of person - a person of more than one culture - is becoming more and more common, but it's still very new in the literature. There's kind of a lag. If you are one of these people you usually have to work all this out by yourself, and it's fun to find a book that's working on the same project.

Plus, all this heavy stuff is dealt with with a lovely lightness of touch and sense of the absurd. I feel like I would like Kiran Desai if I met her. Read this Guardian interview with her, it's quite sweet. And makes me feel guilty I wrote her off as a product of nepotism.

There are some awesome bits:

The police are checking the house for evidence:
A thousand deceased spiders lay scattered like dead blossoms on the attic floor, and above them, on the underside of the tin sieve roof, dodging drips, their offspring stared at the police as they did at their own ancestors – with a giant, saucer-sized lack of sympathy.

A hotel manager talking about rich tourists:
“Hah! What money? They are so scared they’ll be taken advantage of because of their wealth, they try and bargain down on the cheapest room . . . And yet, just see.” He showed them a postcard the couple had left for the front desk to post: “Had a great dinner for $.450. We cant believe how cheap this county is!”

When Biju is deciding to return home:
Shouldn’t he return to a life where he might slice his own importance, to where he might relinquish this overrated control over his own destiny and dperhaps be subtracted from its determination altogether? He might even experience that greatest luxury of not noticing himself at all.

Fabulous. Loved it. I read somewhere else recently that the great joy of exile or immigration is that you are set free from fate. It's interesting to see here he regards having to choose your own path as a curse not a blessing.

A very poor woman cleaning the airport:
Eyes lowered and swatting bare feet with a filthy rag, she introduced some visitor sfor the first time to that potent mixture of intense sympathy and intense annoyance.

A minor character we meet in the airport, an Indian who lives in Omaha:
He knew what his father thought: that immigration, so often presented as a heroic act, could just as easiy be the opposite; that it is was corwardice that led many to America; fear marked the journey, not bravery; a cockroachy desire to scuttle to where you never saw poeverty, not really, never had to suffer a tug to your conscience; where you never heard the demands of servants, beggards, bankrupt relatives and where your generosity would never be openly claimed; where by merely looking after you own wife-child-dog-yard you could feel virtuous. Experience the relief of being an unkown transplant to the locals and hide the perspective granted by journey.

I'm still trying to figure out what the title means.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

DILEMMA OF A GHOST/ANOWA by Ama Ata Aidoo


Oh dear friends and neighbours. It's time for a little theatre.

These are a pair of charming little plays written by a Ghanaian woman in the 1960s. She was born into a royal (and I'm assuming wealthy) Ghanian family in 1942, and must have had some forward thinking parents, because she got a bit of formal education. She was sent to a convent school, and her headmistress there gave her her first typewriter. It's interesting to see what she has to say, because there are very few people who grew up in a rural, traditional African household and were given a chance to write about it before colonialism wiped that lifestyle out.

There was a very small window between those cultures meeting the West, and being able to dialogue with the West as 'themsleves' - as it were - and the West then wiping them out. Well that sounds a bit dramatic, but you know what I mean. It's like LARK RISE TO CANDLEFORD by Flora Thompson. In one of the weirder comparisons of this blog. There's lots of writing about rural English people of the 19th century, but very little of it is by rural English people of the 19th century. The number of people who actually came from those communities and had the time, interest and access to write is tiny. By the time a large number had been sent to school, and learned to think about writing as a job (as opposed to digging potatoes or whatever) the rural community was gone, as they'd all been sent to school and were planning on being writers.

DILEMMA OF A GHOST is about a man whose Ghanaian family has scraped and saved to send him to University in the US. He returns with an African American wife, and neither wife nor family are happy. ANOWA tells the story - I think traditional - of a woman who rebelled against her family, and chose her own husband; and then, when her husband to everyone's surprise became successful, rebelled against him too. Both plays have strong central female characters, which is interesting, and unusual, and probably tells us a good deal about Aidoo. Both also have a good line in comedy, with the gossipy older ladies being particularly successful. Both set up strong and interesting oppositions. In DILEMMA, who will win our young man's soul? In ANOWA,what is wrong with Anowa? Both plays could be really great! But - you knew there was a but, huh? - both seem to go horribly wrong about three quarters in.

The big reveal in DILEMMA, which shocks and apparently (?) reconciles the family to the newcomer is that she is not barren, but simply waiting to choose when she will have children. And the big reveal in ANOWA is that her husband has become impotent. They both kills themselves upon hearing this news. I can only say: ?

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Lit Quiz #1 Answered


PERSUASION by Jane Austen
FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN by John Fowler

Tut tut TUT.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Lit Quiz #1


Alright chaps:

In which two novels does the seafront at Lyme Regis play a major role?

(Clue: both British authors.)

If you don't know . . . tut, tut, TUT. Answer tomorrow.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

THE LOST DOG by Michelle de Krester


As you may perhaps grasp by reading the title, things didn't go so well with me and Bolano's 2666. I mean, I got to like 200+ pages, but I just couldn't take it anymore. We went into a long section with a guy who was apparently a bit crazy. It was frankly rather dull. It's boring because there is no cause and effect, and thus no plot movement forward or back. Nothing rational goes on, so there's nothing to pay attention to - no line to latch on to and follow. And you just don't care. He goes here, he goes there, he does slightly weird things, he hears voices, he feels sleepy, you get the gist. This is perhaps a true reflection of life for the mentally ill, but it's also a true reflection of how to write a very boring book.

More though than it being dull - because I've ploughed through dull bits of books before, and it's often been totally worth it for what's coming - I found the entire tone of the book rather depressing. There seemed to be a general idea that life was crazy, and sad, and that no one was ever going to get anywhere - the critics, in the first section, with their love affairs and hunt for Archimboldi, and then the second section with the crazy guy. So I figured my crazy and sad life was too short for all that.

So onto THE LOST DOG by Michelle de Krester. This tells the story of a man who loses his dog. He is in the middle of some kind of half hearted love affair, and we cut back and forth between the love affair and the hunt for the dog. This is one literary-ass book. It is so literature I kind of want to barf a bit. It was full of images. There they are buying like whatever, noodles or something, and the noodle seller has . . . exquisite hands. Oh yes. Oh god. Part way through I just had to stop and read the author bio and the back flap, and what do you know, she is a professor of English Lit. Barforama. But other than that it was okay. And don't worry I'm still also on Trollope's DR THORNE. More on this later.