Sunday, 31 July 2011

ALL THE PRETTY HORSES by Cormac McCarthy

This is a lovely little story of the Wild West, just at the period when the West was ceasing to be Wild. It is a coming-of-age story tinged with the melancholy of a disappearing world.

It is the 1940s, and a teenager, John Grady, convinces his friend Rawlins to ride away with him from their Texas homes in search of adventure in Mexico. They end up at a ranch, capturing and breaking wild horses, and John Grady falls in love with the rancher's daughter. Mexican justice is almost as capricious as a Kenyan policeman, and the two are unexpectedly imprisoned, somewhat randomly, and have to fight for days with the other inmates. On their release, Rawlins goes back home, and the scarred John Grady returns to try and win the rancher's daughter.

The heart of this book, as in any good Western, is the relationship between the two boys, which is sweet, loving and very funny. I am now trying energetically to work “crazy as a shit-house rat” into my everyday conversation. Here is an extract from a section where Rawlins hasn't seen John Grady for a while:
Bud is that you?
Yeah.
Sum buck, he said. Sum buck. He walked around him to get him in the light and he looked at him as if he were something rare.
You may gather from the lack of conversation markers that this is a literary book, and you'd be right. The evocation of the West is gorgeous:
He pointed his horse at the polestar and rode on and they rode the round moon up out of the east and coyotes yammered and answered back all across the plain to the south from which they'd come
.
(A long literary sentences is however a difficult thing, and can go badly wrong. This one, for example, makes me want to smack someone in the mouth:
The barn was built on the english style and it was sheathed with milled one by fours and painted white and it had a cupola and a weathervane on top of the cupola.
Oh shut up.)

This was a very action-packed book, and the action was so fast paced and brutal that if there has not been a movie made of it I will eat my Stetson. However, I found the book to be really rather sad. This is in part because any novel about growing up is always melancholy, because it always implies a loss, of innocence, or of childhood. In part, also, the book seemed to be mourning a certain kind of lost masculinity. Personally, I don't think there's much to mourn there, masculinity and feminity both seeming to me to be primarily a kind of trap – but this book is all about the romance of fulfilling your gender role. Mostly however the sadness comes from the fact that the world of the West is so clearly dying out over the period the book covers.

The car, and modernity, are everywhere in the book. Thus, when John Grady and Rawlins first set out:
The store had nothing in the way of feed. They bought a box of dried oatmeal and paid their bill and went out. John Grady cut the paper drum in two with his knife and they poured the oatmeal into a couple of hubcaps and sat on the picnic table and smoked while the horses ate.
And at the end of the book:
He rode with the sun coppering his face and the red wind blowing out of the west across the evening land and the small desert birds flew chittering among the dry bracken and horse and rider passed on and their long shadows passed in tandem like the shadow of a single being. Passed and paled into the darkening land, the world to come.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

OUT OF AFRICA by Karen Blixen


I have reviewed this for Africa Book Club - here it is! I will only say, it is not at all like the movie.

If you aren't going to click through, let me leave you with this interesting little extract:

The Elite Of Bournemouth

I had as neighbour a settler who had been a doctor at home. Once, when the wife of one of my houseboys was about to die in childbirth, and I could not get into Nairobi, because the long ruins had ruined the roads, I wrote to my neighbour and asked him to do me the great service of coming over and helping her. He very kindly came, in the midst of a terrible thunderstorm and torrents of tropical rain, and, a the last moment, by his skill, he saved the life of the woman and the child.

Afterwards he wrote me a letter to say that although he had once, on my appeal, treated a Native, I must understand that he could not let that sort of thing occur again. I myself would fully realize the fact, he felt convinced, when he informed me that he had before now, practised to the elite of Bournemouth.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

PHINEAS FINN by Anthony Trollope


The only thing better than a giant Victorian novel is a series of giant Victorian novels, and that's what Trollope has graciously given the world in his Palliser series.

I read the first one earlier this year (here), and decided to start on this one, the second in the series, when my real life was all getting to be too much for me. It's like an 800 page holiday. (Perhaps I should rename this blog A Page A Day Keeps The Psychosis Away?)

Phineas Finn is sent to London by his father, an Irish doctor, to become a lawyer. He's not much of a student, but is handsome and fun, and somehow, in a triumph of social skills and appearance over probability, finds himself standing for parliament. This is crazy, as at that time parliament did not pay a wage, and was thus usually the preserve of the independently wealthy. Phineas decides to take the risk, and is fairly successful, eventually securing a government post that pays a wage. On the way, he falls in and out of love with a Lady Laura, and a Miss Violet, but eventually returns to his first love, Mary, at home in Ireland. Unfortunately Mary has no money, and when Phineas feels he has to give up his government post as he can no longer vote with the government on the subject of Irish tenant rights, he has to give up London and return to Ireland to try at last and make a career as a lawyer.

As always with Trollope, this is an engaging and complex story, and you come to care for Phineas and relate to the painful maturing process of his twenties. This is the more so because you know you have four novels to go, in which Phineas will reappear in various ways, probably right up to old age. One of the delights of this second novel is in fact meeting again characters frm the first one, and even one character from Trollope's Barchester novels, a series I read in those dark and miserable days before this blog.

I found the multiple love affairs a bit unlikely, and the politics sometimes a drag, but I would say I was most entertained for at least 700 of the 800 pages. I leave you with a little bit of unexpected Trollopian wisdom on, of all things, comparing British and American politics:
It is not so in the United States. There the same political enmity exists, but the political enmity produces private hatred. The leaders of parties there really mean what they say when they abuse each other, and are in earnest when they talk as though they were about to tear other limb from limb.
If only the Tea Party were reading Trollope!

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

FEVER PITCH by Nick Hornby


Everybody has embarrassing hang-ups. Most people do not talk about these hang-ups, and certainly most people do not write books about them, so I feel Nick Hornby is to be applauded for the horrible honesty which he brings to his autobiographical book, FEVER PITCH, in which he discusses his relationship with football.

Nick Hornby likes football. He likes football a lot. More than he should really be admitting.

His obsession began when he was taken to a football match by his father, after his parents' divorce, and this is where the book begins. Hornby theorizes that he may have become so involved with football at that time in an attempt to bond with his father, or to model masculine behaviour, now he lived only with women. This sounds to me like the sort of 'explanation' you get from books such as ROOTS OF PSYCHOLOGICAL PROBLEMS FOR DUMMIES, but whatever the reasons for his obsession, it came to dominate his life.

Hornby went to Cambridge, where he did not work very hard, and then found himself to be rather lost for a while, working at various times as an administrator, and as a teacher. After losing his first serious girlfriend, he struggled to maintain a relationship. He attended the matches of his team, Arsenal, religiously, and in many ways lived through their successes and failures, more than his own. He never, ever, misses a match, even when very ill, and is emotionally bound up in their successes and failures to an extent that is basically creepy. Thus for example, when Arsenal wins some big championship (I don't know which, I'm sorry, I found the straight football bits boring) he actually begins to turn his own life around, eventually becoming a writer.

In addition to being rather sad, for Hornby clearly struggles very painfully to sort out his life, the book is in many ways very funny. Thus, discussing a man he sees who has died of a heart attack immediately after a match, he comments: 'It worries me, the prospect of dying in mid-season like that,' and continues, 'The whole point about death, metaphorically speaking, is that it is almost bound to occur before the major trophies have been awarded.'

So a painfully honest, strangely intimate, and very funny book, about what it means to love something more than you should.

Monday, 25 July 2011

FLY FISHING FOR SHARKS by Andrew Alexander


This book is an honest account of a young man's battle with obsessive-compulsive disorder and with depression.

Andrew Alexander grew up in Zimbabwe, and was educated at various times in South Africa, so the story is largely set in these two countries. His symptoms first appear in high school when he develops an obssessive need to check some aspects of his homework. Various other obsessions emerge, most especially around HIV, which makes him fear infection from even the most unlikely objects, and around driving, when he begins to fear that he has unknowingly hurt someone with his car.

The stress of moving to Cape Town for university triggers a major episode, and he is finally able to tell his family and get some psychiatric help. OCD is not an easy disease to treat, and he does not seem to get the very best of medical assistance. He eventually feels well enough to move to the UK, but the stress of London is too much for him and triggers another episode. He eventually develops depression, along with his OCD, and attempts suicide twice.

The author's breakdown occurs within the context of the breakdown of Zimbabwe, and thus the book is also an interesting window into a certain historical and political moment. As with most middle class Zimbabweans of his generation he has lived in at least three countries, and thus the book has an easy cosmopolitanism. It is also, despite its serious subject matter, often very funny. One feels very intimate with the author, who clearly has thought deeply about himself and his world, and is at pains to share his knowledge with you as honestly as he can. The path to self-knowledge is a long and painful one, whatever your mental health status, and Alexander has clearly gone a good deal further down it than most.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

IN THE MIDST OF LIFE by Jennifer Worth


This is a maudlin and poorly written book that makes an unexpectedly good point.

The book is intended to question the way western culture deals with imminent death. The author begins with an account of her grandfather's death, which happened gently, and at home, and contrasts this with the deaths she frequently saw as a nurse. It is very common apparently for elderly people to end their lives in a great deal of pain, over an extended period, because doctors feel driven by a fear of litigation to extend life, even if only for a few days, by very painful, invasive procedures.

She gives many examples of elderly or terminally ill persons forced through many weeks or even months of great pain because their carers felt unable to simply let the person go gently. Unfortunately, we do not need many examples to understand her case; one or two would have been quite sufficient. As it is, the book degenerates into a rather sentimental, even morbid, succession of stories of people dying in horrible conditions. I'm not going to say I didn't spend some of the book in tears, but this owes less to the quality of the writing than to the quality of this reader: I am a giant wimp.

I wish the book had involved more examination into how this state of affairs had developed, because where she briefly looks at this it becomes much more interesting. For example, there is some discussion of the fact that in long term care facilities, it is normal for dementia patients to have a feeding tube inserted into their stomachs. You might think this is because they cannot eat, but you'd be wrong. The tubes are inserted because it saves carers fifteen minutes for each patient – they do not have to spoon their food into their mouths, but can just pour it down the tube.

PERSONAL MBA by Josh Kaufman


This is an unusual entry for this blog. It is, according to the author, a distillation of the most important ideas to be learnt in an MBA.

The author clearly has a pretty big chip on his shoulder about MBA programmes, and in particular about their price. He froths at the mouth for some time in the introduction about how much debt you go into to attend one, and how little you learn. I suspect he may be right about this, though it seems pretty obvious to me that most people do not go to business school to learn about business so much as to make contacts and to have a prestigious institution's name on their CV. And these are very valuable assets, probably much more important than actually knowing what you are doing.

So this book focuses on the secondary goal, which is actually learning about business. I found it a very good basic introduction to the main concepts in business: profits, costs, overheads, etc. It is very clearly aimed at those starting a small business, and has many excellent recommendations, including explaining how to predict when a business will begin to make a return on investment, and how to start from the most basic beginnings.

Fittingly, for a book about reading, I also learn how to appropriately commodify books and magazines. Apparently, while there are many value forms (production, leasing, etc), reading matter may be classified as 'audience aggregators,' that have value primarily because the attention of the audience you gain can be sold on at a profit. Take that, Proust, Shakespeare, et al!

It really makes you think. For example, it made me think: if only Herman Melville had had a copy of PERSONAL MBA while he was dying in poverty! How different the history of nineteenth century American letters!

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

MY ANTONIA by Willa Cather

Nebraska is not a poetic state. New York, yes. California, yes. Conneticut, maybe. Nebraska, no.

And yet MY ANTONIA made Nebraska a new place for me. It tells the story of a little boy who grows up on a farm in that state in the early nineteenth century, and very movingly recreates the landscape and the people of a small corner of the US just as it is being born. We are mostly focused on his relationship with a young Bohemian (is this Czech?) girl, Antonia, who has just emigrated there. They are free to run all over the country, and we get a vivid child's eye view of the emerging farm land. He tells us for example:
Trees were so rare in that country, and they had to make such a hard fight to grow, that we used to feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were persons. It must have been the scarcity of detail in that tawny landscape that made detail so precious.
Or:
We brought the cows home to the corner nearest the barn, and the boys milked them while night came on. Everything was as it should be: the strong smell of sunflowers and ironweed in the dew, the clear blue and gold of the sky, the evening star, the purr of the milk into the pails, the grunts and squeals of the pigs fighting over their supper. I began to feel the loneliness of a farm-boy at evening, when the chores seem everlastingly the same, and the world so far away.
And:
As the sun sank there came a sudden coolness and the strong smell of earth and drying grass. Antonia and her father went off hand in hand, and I buttoned up my jacket and raced my shadow home.
Antonia's father kills himself, out of homesickness during a freezing Midwestern winter, and her life becomes hard, as she works like a man to keep the farm afloat. She eventually goes into domestic service in town, right next door to the narrator. She is there influenced by 'fast' girls, one of whom was often visited by a married man while she was herding cows. One of the modest women of the town lectures her about making eyes at men, to which she replies:
I never made anything to him with my eyes. I can't help it if he hangs around, and I can't order him off. It ain't my prairie.
This is a fine sample of the down-home dialogue I loved in this book and I have been trying since I read it to work "ain't my prairie" into my ordinary conversation, with limited success.

Antonia is eventually impregnated and abandoned by a worthless young man, and when our narrator leaves for university, we feel her future is to be a shamed woman on her family farm for the rest of her life. When the narrator returns, however, twenty years later and after a career as a lawyer, he finds her happily married and with a big family. This occurs very near the end of the book, and I was beginning to worry where this was all going, and how Cather was going to be able to wrap it up with any kind of thematic or narrative neatness. The novel ends as follows, with the narrator standing on a road by Antonia's house, and thinking of the first time he met her, on that road, the night that they both arrived in Nebraska:
The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man's experience is. For Antonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for all of us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.
And somehow that worked beautifully for me.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

THE GOOD COMPANIONS by JB Priestly

This book begins with three people suddenly deciding to escape their everyday lives and go in search of adventure. One is a middle aged spinster, whose overbearing father has just died; one is a young tutor, fired from his school; and the third is a capenter from the North who finally gets up the courage to leave his wife. All three end up involved with a small variety show, which is touring sad little British towns.

JB Priestly was most famous as a playwright, and thus this world, of provinical touring in the 1920s, is one he knew well, and he presents an entertianing picture of dirty digs and hopeful startlets. Here is a sample, where a gardener has come up and stood hands on hips in front of his employer:
This was his favourite attitude when he had anything important to say, so that Miss Trant, who knew her man, realised at once that he was bursting with news. Not that he looked excited. You cannot expect a gardener who for the last six years has won the first prize for onions (Alisa Craigs) – to say nothing of any number of minor events – at the Hitherton and District Show, to betray his feelings.

The writer is so relentlessly entertaining however that he is never less than arm's length from his characters, so I found that as a reader I was too, which meant the book became less and less involving as it went on.

Life has been described as being simply one damn thing after another, and THE GOOD COMPANIONS was certainly life-like in this way, becoming after a while rather a rather dull procession of provincial towns. By the end, I was wishing the tour would end just as much as the actors were.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Our Monthly Marcel


I try every month to bring you a new snippet from the patron saint of this blog, the hypochondriac, painfully closeted, fabulously talented, Marcel Proust . . .

"There is no man however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived a life, the memory of which is so unpleasant to him that he would gladly expunge it.

And yet he ought not entirely to regret it, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man . . . unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be preceded.

The lives that you admire, the attitudes that seem noble to you, have not been shaped by a paterfamilias or a schoolmaster, they have sprung from very different beginnings, having been influenced by everything evil or commonplace that prevailed about them. They represent a struggle and a victory."

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 ...