Friday, 28 October 2011


I don't know if there's something wrong with the books at the moment, or something wrong with me, but I seem to be abandoning literature left and right.

I feel somehow I ought to finish books I begin, but then I'm overwhelmed by how very short a time we get to live, and I throw them gleefully aside.

SONG OF SOLOMON by Toni Morrison
This woman has won the Pultizer, and I was all ready to love her work. I found this one however to be in essence a fakey pastiche of Zora Neale Hurston. Here's the paragraph that broke this camel's back:
I worked right alongside my father. Right alongside him. From the time I was four or five we worked together. Just the two of us. Our mother was dead. Died when Pilate was born. Pilate was just a baby. She stayed over at another farm in the daytime.


Reinforcing my prejudice against books with colons in the title, I found this to be a dull book on a promising subject. The promising subject was the fact that in the eighteenth century there was a bubble, not so much in tulips, as in tulip futures, with single bulbs changing hands for vast fortunes, This struck me as an interesting paradigm for thinking about our various contemporary bubbles, but no such luck. The only interesting thing I learnt from this book was that in the nineteenth century the Ottoman Emperors used to let a condemned run a race of half a mile with their executioner. If you won, you lived; if not, you died.


I read the first eighty pages of this over someone's shoulder. It's a pretty interesting book about a very successful life. He doesn't pull any punches, either, about how successful:
All the Indians agreed that I was a special baby, and that I had been born with a golden spoon in my mouth and that everything during my lifetime would be exactly as I wished it. Looking back at my life, I see that they were quite right.
Check out the bookcover though. I can't believe that turned out exactly as he wished it.


A murder mystery set in a monastery. Dull and self-consciously postmodern.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011


This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast.

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold.

William Carlos Williams

Monday, 24 October 2011

WE ARE ALL MADE OF GLUE by Marina Lewycka

WE ARE ALL MADE OF GLUE tells the story of a middle aged woman whose husband has just left her. She meets an elderly neighbour who is living in a decaying house, which estate agents are attempting to get their hands on in anticipation of a juicy sale. This elderly neighbour is charming and fun and apparently a Holocaust survivor. The odd job man she finds for the house is a Palestinian.

At this point, though I know it is mean, I can only say: blah blah blah. Insights into other cultures, religion in the modern world, ad?@sldiafaseijrtwe. I'm sorry, I just feel asleep on my keyboard.

Here are a couple of searing insights our central character has for us about the Middle East Peace Process:
Zion was their big dream. It was a good dream too. But they found you can't build dreams with guns. Just nightmares.
Profound. Try also:
Maybe forgiveness isnt'such a big deal, after all. Maybe it's just a matter of habit. All this mental activity was making me thirsty. I put the kettle on and nipped down to the bakery for a Danish pastry.
That faux naif narrative voice alone is enough to make my eyeballs bleed.

I read Lewycka's A BRIEF HISTORY OF TRACTORS IN UKRANIAN some time ago, and found it to be a charming and funny book with a heart of gold. I'm even fond of the author, who sounds charming in interviews, and was rejected 36 times before TRACTORS was published. I really can't imagine what's gone so totally wrong in the writing that turned out this dreary and simplistic novel. Sorry Marina!

Sunday, 23 October 2011


I've reviewed WHITE MISCHIEF for Africa Book Club here.

It tells the story of one of Africa's most notorious unsolved murders, and revolves around the tiny white community in Kenya in the 1930s and 40s, known as the Happy Valley.

I'd heard a lot about the gin-guzzling, wife-swopping, bed-hopping ways of this wealthy and leisured group, and assumed it was mostly myth. From WHITE MISCHIEF I learnt it was not myth. In fact, it was a all good deal grosser than I heard (vaginal juices on corpses: I'll say no more). Basically, these people needed to get out and find JOBS.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

AGNES GRAY by Anne Bronte

Based on AGNES GRAY I am forced to conclude that poor Anne was the untalented Bronte.

I had high hopes initially, as AGNES begins very much in the vein of the quality Bronte novel: lone governess, new location, lots of likely looking young men. Excellent.

Anne herself worked as a governess, and god, it shows. This book might well be titled GOVERNESS TELLS ALL. Or HOW I HATED BEING A GOVERNESS. Or maybe, THESE VICTORIAN KIDS ARE ALL BRATS.

The first third of the book is spent with one family of badly behaved children, and constitutes Agnes (ie Anne) explaining how poor parenting creates a horrible home environment. She then leaves this house, and it is never referred to again, and has no bearing on the rest of the novel at all. In her next home, the children are also badly behaved, but somewhat less so. She makes the whole situation worse by seeming to have a point of policy whereby she never, for any reason, expresses her actual feelings to anyone. Thus, she spends all her time seething, and no time at all attempting to honestly resolve her difficulties. It's a textbook case of building your own prison, by means of your own wilful silence, and makes it hard to care what happens to Agnes.

She is introduced to the local rector, and after speaking to him three times (two of these about the weather) she falls madly in love with him. Eventually, but by then you are so bored you just don't care, they get together.

Here's him asking her to go to the shore with him, so he can propose. Hold on to your hats, ladies, this guy knows how to work it:
“I see by those light clouds in the west, there will be a brilliant sunset, and we shall be in time to witness its effect upon the sea, at the most moderate rate of progression.”
Nuff said.


Okay, let's have another Larkin. Very different from last week's, but lovely I think.

An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd -
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor's sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would no guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the grass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-littered ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigures them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Philip Larkin

Saturday, 15 October 2011


I picked this book up pretty much at random from my parents' bookcase one night when I had run out of reading matter and needed something to take to bed.

I only managed about the first thirty pages, but they were irritating. Gray makes some coherent arguments about what he imagines the differences between men and women to be, which some people might find useful to think about. For example, he encourages women not to feel rejected if a man feels like sitting quietly with the paper.

Gray says that men feel it is important to be successful providers, and thus may feel upset if they receive 'unsolicited advice' from women. He also says that when women wish to share their feelings, they do not want men to 'offer solutions.' I see. So when I say what I think someone should do, that is unsolicited advice, but when a boy tells me what to do, that is offering a solution.

Thank god it was already bedtime.

Friday, 14 October 2011


I would have thought that the major challenge of walking the Appalachian Trail would be fighting off inbred rednecks who want to kill you with chainsaws. This is however apparently only a minor aspect of the experience. Bill Bryson sets out to walk the Trail from where it begins in Georgia, to where it ends in Maine, a distance of about 2000 miles.

About a third of the way into the book, after we have suffered and staggered up endless mountains and round countless dales with him, he comes to a small convenience store with a map of the Trail, extending about four feet. He finds he has only walked the first two inches. He decides he will not be walking the whole Trail. This is apparently not unusual. According to Bryson:
2000 people start the Trail every year, and only about 10% get to the end; half don't make it past central Virginia, less than a third of the way; a quarter get no further than North Carolina, the next state. As many as twenty percent drop out in the first week.
The driver who makes a living picking people up at the airport and dropping them at the start of the Trail tells Bryson that it is not unusual for him to hear from people asking to be picked up after three days, which is the amount of time it takes to walk to the first payphone.

The Appalachian Trail we learn is long, and steep, and often very boring. It is also very beautiful, and for that portion of the Trail that Bryson manages, he writes about this very movingly.

The Trail was created in the 1930s with voluntary labour, in only seven years, making it the largest voluntary undertaking on the planet. Much of the book is taken up with discussing how much of the American wilderness has disappeared since the Trail was founded. Apparently, early on, there were many pecan trees, but as it was normal to cut down especially tall trees (that could be as much as two hundred years old) just to make nut harvesting that bit easier, there are now few of these left. There are also many fewer birds than there used to be: in one year, Pennsylvania paid out $90,000 in bounties for the killing of 130,000 owls and hawks, to save farmers just $1,875 in livestock losses.

This book is not as comic as Bryson's other work, but is still an interesting read, packed with fun facts like those above. Let me just close with two more, too interesting not to be squeezed in. If you can find a way to casually fit these into ordinary conversation, you get extra points.
-in the forty years before the First World War, 50,000 people died in American mines
-every twenty minutes on the Trail you walk more than the average American walks in a week.

Actually, I shouldn't have said it's not comic. There are some funny true stories. It's not nice to laugh at one-handed children, but maybe its understandable if they lost their hand because their IDIOT MOTHER put honey on it, so that she could film the cute bear licking the hand with her camcorder.

Friday, 7 October 2011


SAY YOU'RE ONE OF THEM is a collection of short stories which relate the struggles of young people from various parts of Africa. As recorded previously in the this blog, I generally not so fond of short stories, but I found this collection really engaging.

The first story, An Ex-Mas Feast, tells the story of a streetkid whose twelve year old sister is prostituting herself so he can go to school. This sounds like a terribly sad story, and indeed in many ways it is; but the writing is somehow also often both lyrical and comic. Here's an example, of the streetkid looking for his sister, when he finds she has bought him a new uniform:
I felt like running out to search for her in the streets. I wanted to hug her and laugh until the moon dissolved. I wanted to buy her Coke and chapati, for sometimes she forgot to eat.
The author clearly has much experience of the lives of the very poor, for he recreates the difficult lives of those in Nairobi's slums with great detail. We learn, for example, that the family member most in need of warmth has one of their limbs put through a hole in the family's single blanket, to ensure that they stay in the middle.

The next story, Fattening for Gabon, is in my opinion the best in the collection, being both full of suspense, and really complex in its characters. It follows the story of two small children taken in by their uncle. The children receive great food and new clothes, and it becomes increasingly clear that their uncle is preparing them to be shipped off with human traffickers, and battling with second thoughts as he does so.

Further stories take place in religious conflict in Nigeria, and during the genocide Rwanda. As I got closer to the end of the book, I had my fingers crossed for at least one story about middle class children in Cairo, or Dakar, or Joburg; but no such luck I'm afraid. This I found to be rather sad: apparently the millions of children in Africa not victims of starvation or violence don't have any stories to tell. Or perhaps in the minds of publishers if you're not starving you can't really be African?

In any case, these were well written stories, if on a rather narrow theme, and Nigerian Uwem Akpan is a talented author. I was rather surprised to learn that he is also a Catholic priest, and was quite touched to find out that many of his first stories were typed up on the seminary's community computers, and then immediately lost to computer viruses. Oh Africa!

(This focus on poverty as a subject in African fiction I noted some time ago, here, in the context of the Caine Prize – much more on this subject can be found here with Nana at ImageNations, who has collected much useful debate on the subject)

Thursday, 6 October 2011

BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver

Despite being so extremely young as I am, I don't tend to read much Young Adult fiction. I don't generally get the point of it. However, for some reason I decided to give Lauren Oliver's BEFORE I FALL a whirl, and I'm glad I did.

The book opens with a very detailed account of one day - February 12 - in the life of a popular high school girl, Sam. Sam goes to school, and then to a party, and each place and all its events are minutely described. This focus on one day confused me at first, in fact till the next morning, when Sam wakes up to find that it is still February 12, and she has to live the day over again in every particular.

Oh dear, I thought. How on earth is this author going to make Groundhog Day work? Shall I give up on this book now?

Thing is, it's not really Groundhog Day. At the end of the first February 12, Sam is in a car crash, and it becomes increasingly clear that she is in fact dead. The makes the book more interesting, but also more complicated, as there is apparently therefore nothing for her to work towards. She can't be saved. Or can she?

We begin to realise that she is being given the day again and again so that she can learn to appreciate that day. She learns to love that ordinary day, and thus in some way, to love her ordinary life. She learns to appreciate skipping breakfast, and her sister running out with her gloves, and driving with her best friend.

BEFORE I FALL is based around that lesson that's so incredibly hard to learn, about learning to love what you've got.

I didn't want to, but I found this book curiously touching.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

SKIPPY DIES by Paul Murray

SKIPPY DIES is an enjoyable and complex novel, which can't decide if it's a tragedy or a comedy.

It's 616 dense pages, dealing in great detail with a group of fourteen year old boys at a Catholic boarding school, in which tone, theme, and character perspective are all constantly changing.
Any Harry Potter type fantasies tend to get squashed pretty quickly: life in the Tower, an ancient building composed mostly of draughts, is a deeply unmagical experience, spent at the mercy of lunatic teachers, bullies, athlete's foot epidemics, etc. There are some small consolations. At a point in life in which the lovely nuturing homes built for them by their parents have become unendurable Guantanomos, and any time spent away from their peers is experienced at best as a mind-numbing commercial break for things no one wants to buy on some old person's TV channel and at worst as a torture not incomparable to being actually genuinely nailed to a cross, the boarders do enjoy a certain prestige among the boys.
Clearly, much of the book is very funny. As the title suggests however, all is not entirely well. Skippy is the student Daniel Juster, who falls madly in love with a girl from a neighbouring school. He is an unhappy and mildly dorky boy, who can't seem to get up the courage to quit the swim team, which he seems to hate, though the reason for this is not clear. He eventually overdoses on painkillers.

Don't be mislead into thinking that this is the story of the novel. There are about six major stories: one for Daniel, one for his history teacher, one for this room mate, one for the girl he's in love with, etc etc. Some of these stories are comic, some sad, all are interesting. There's a compelling examination of the extent to which the old are ranged against the young, and vice versa, and Robert Graves' GOODBYE TO ALL THAT (reviewed by me here), about the First World War, is referenced often:
We no longer saw the war as one between trade-rivals: its continuance seemed merely a sacrifice of the idealistic younger generation to the stupidity and self-protective alarm of the elder.
This idea, of the young as constantly betrayed by the old, is very interesting. All is going very well, in short, for the first two thirds of the novel, until sadly the author begins to build in climaxes for each story, and oh god, but they are cheesy.

Guess why Skippy hates the swim team: yes, yes, got it in one, he is being abused. Guess what happens when Skippy's girflriend gives someone a blowjob to prove she loves him: he records it on his phone. You get the idea. It's all what elderly newspaper critics would describe as 'gritty.'

Unfortunately the thematic resolutions are as cheesy as the plot resolutions. Here's something:
Maybe instead of strings it's stories that things are made of, an infinite number of tiny vibrating stories.
If I had a penny for every novel that concluded that our lives are just stories I would puke.

Or try this
So this guy's saying, instead of searching for ways out of our lives, what we should be searching for are ways in . .
Oh dear.

Sunday, 2 October 2011


Here's a little something for us to ponder this month . . .

"We are incapable, while we are in love, of acting as fit predecessors of the persons whom we shall presently have become and who will be in love no longer."

Wise words. Poor Proust was painfully closeted all his life (see photo), so reading his work does tend to make one feel better about one's romantic life in comparison, no matter how rubbish it might be.


I started reading this book in the glorious pre-pandemic days of one week ago when COVID was some Chinese problem.   It begins as a medi...