Wednesday, 30 March 2011

LETTERS BETWEEN A FATHER AND SON by V.S Naipaul


I don't know much about VS Naipaul, beyond his A HOUSE FOR MR BISWAS, which is a wonderful novel. It's set in Trinidad, and the book's so good that ridiculously, I now feel whenever I hear about Trinidad that I have some kind of personal relationship with it.

LETTERS BETWEEN A FATHER AND SON is made up of correspondence between VS Naipaul, his father and his sister, written during the period after he left Trinidad for Oxford University. There is much discussion of the prosaic – money movements, sending socks, and so forth; but also much discussion about writing – the father has literary ambitions, and encourages his son endlessly; and many heart-to-hearts, especially at the end when 'Pa' dies unexpectedly.

There was a lot I could relate to in these letters. I also left a developing country for a developed one, and the attempt to reconcile these worlds, the apologies for not writing, the death of pets and passage of time were really quite touching.

I actually felt quite sorry for VS Naipaul, or Vidia, as his family call him. He seemed to me to struggling with some very serious mental colonisation. For example, hilariously, he is all ready for the beauty of an English autumn! Clearly, he has done a lot of reading Keats (here for his Ode on that season), and not a whole lot of waiting on an open platform for the 4.52 to Charing Cross.

He is entirely convinced that in escaping Trinidad he has made a great escape, from a place which is self-evidently less interesting and less worthy of notice than wonderful, wonderful England. And yet, at the same time, what is he constantly writing fiction about? That terrible, boring place, Trinidad. And he doesn't seem to see any contradiction there.

A very sad strand in these letters is the desire of Vidia's father to become an author. Vidia is very close to his father, and we learn a lot about this. Pa is hampered by a lack of time, as he has to work constantly to support his many children. (VS does not come off at all well in this respect, as he writes very pointedly to his mother after his father's death, telling her to tell his younger sister to not to have too many children! As if his poor mother was having them all by herself, asexually, like an amoeba)

A HOUSE FOR MR BISWAS is in fact apparently a version of the story of his father's life, and I find it rather sad that that should be Naipaul's masterpiece in the end. Immediately after Pa's death, he writes to his sister, saying:
In a way I had always looked upon my life as a continuation of his – a continuation which, I hoped, would also be a fulfillment. It still is; but I have to abandon the idea of growing older in Pa's company; and I have to get the strength to stand alone. I only wish I have half Pa's bravery and fortitude.
Indeed it seems that for many A HOUSE FOR MR BISWAS is the book on which his reputation rests. IN A FREE STATE I believe won the Booker (but let's face it, that was also won by the wretched FINKLER QUESTION), and I don't believe we need to know any more about the literary quality of that book than that large sections of it are set in 'an unnamed African country.' Because obviously all of Africa is pretty much the same.

Mr Naipaul, take a tip from Mr Marley: Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds!

Friday, 25 March 2011

CAN YOU FORGIVE HER? By Anthony Trollope


This is the first novel I have read on my new Kindle. I feel weird about it. I am, proudly, a late adopter of technology, and here I am leaping in to the e-book.

I didn't have much choice. I have moved to Kenya, where there are not really a great many bookstores or libraries, and I felt a probably unhealthy degree of fear at the prospect of running out of things to read. Let's be serious, we definitely don't want to be left to our own thoughts.

So I bought a Kindle and it's already got ten books on it, and took up no space at all in my luggage.

This is a good thing, as Trollope's CAN YOU FORGIVE HER? is an impressive 900+ pages. Stephen King apparently christened it CAN YOU POSSIBLY FINISH IT?, while contemporary critics called it CAN YOU STAND HER?

These people are all mean. It's a pretty good book. It's the first in Trollope's Palliser series. Regular readers may remember how much I loved his Barchester books (here, here, here, and here), and I'm all ready to begin with the Pallisers. How I love Victorian fiction! How I love books that are free for the Kindle! I leave you to decide which is the stronger motivation for this new Trollope kick.

The HER that you may or may not FORGIVE is Alice Vavasor. She broke off her engagement to her cousin George when he cheated on her, and got engaged to another man, John Grey. She then got spooked about him, and broke up with him, getting engaged again to her cousin, and then eventually going back to John Grey. This sounds like a month in the life of the average sixteen year old, but I guess was a bigger deal in the nineteenth century. There are two parallel stories, a comic one about Alice's aunt, who is wealthy and has two middle-aged suitors, and a more serious one about Lady Glencora, Alice's friend, a wealthy young woman who has been forced to marry a man she does not love, and seriously considers leaving.

The book is almost melodramatic in tone, with cousin George going mad as the book goes on, and attempting murder; Lady Glencora's lover considering suicide; and Alice just slutting it up left and right. It is in that way very different from the Barchester novels, but is similar to them in Trollope's easy, fun prose, psychological insight, strong character development, and involving storytelling.

I'm being flip about the slutting. What I found most engaging actually about this book was Alice's struggle to determine what she wants of life. She gets spooked about John Grey because she suddenly fears she will be unhappy at his country home, and might be happier as a politician's wife, with her cousin George in London. She has a really hard struggle within herself as to what she actually wants or needs from her life, and I think most of us can relate to that.

She eventually, once she thinks she has lost it, realises that the quiet and prosaic life is her real choice. Comments Trollope:
“All her misery had been brought about by this scornful superiority to the ordinary pursuits of the world, - this looking down upon humanity.”

Monday, 21 March 2011

BLACK BOOK and BLEEDING HEARTS by Ian Rankin


I'm reading so much of this for work that this is practically becoming a Rankin blog. I will name it Blankin. Or Rog

I recently reviewed KNOTS AND CROSSES, the first Rankin book, and here in BLACK BOOK Rankin the genre writer is firmly established. Detective Rebus no longer has too much of an inner life, or any gross sex scenes. Plot-plot-plot, that's what we like. The aforementioned plot centres around a fire in a hotel, the guilt felt by the perpetrator, and the attempt by Rebus to pin the fire on its instigator, local tough and long term nemesis Ger McCafferty. Bizarrely, Rankin still finds a role for a paedophile in this story. He is seriously well into paedophilia. Curiously Rankin also talks repeatedly about how pretty this fourteen year old girl is who has a minor role in the plot. Let's not think about it.

BLEEDING HEARTS was written under the nom de plume Jack Harvey. Apparently the Rebus books were taking only three months to write (what a surprise) so Rankin decided while living in bucolic splendour in France, to write mainstream thrillers also. In this one the story cuts between a first person narrative (of the baddie, I think we are supposed to find this innovative), and a second person narrative of the detective hunting him (a fat New York private eye). There is a cult involved, and a stupid twist where the victim turns out actually to have hired the SPOILER ALERT assassin herself in order to commit suicide.

If you skipped everything since SPOILER ALERT as you are thinking of reading this book, I advise you to think again. There are long lists of gun types, and poorly drawn cult members, and worst of all our thirty five year old assassin is pursued by a twenty two year old beauty who is totally and unbelievably sexually confident and bizarrely interested in this weird old man who has obvious psychological problems.

What boggles my mind is how MANY books I have by men in their thirties and forties that feature heroes in their thirties and forties being pursued by nymphs in their twenties. I mean, seriously, wouldn't you be embarrassed to publish such obvious wish fulfillment?

IT'S OUR TURN TO EAT by Michela Wrong


A friend kindly lent me this as I am moving to Kenya. It tells the true (as far as that's possible) story of one John Githongo, who famously decided to blow the whistle on corruption in the Kenyan government.

Kenya used to be run by Daniel arap Moi, who presided over a fairly corrupt administration. (A contemporary joke was: l'etat, c'est moi). Eventually, he was voted out of power (and actually went – take a tip, ZANU), and replaced with Mwai Kibaki. Kibaki promised an end to the corruption, and hired John Githongo to head a special anti-graft unit. There was much hope throughout Kenya that a new dawn was genuinely on the horizon.

Githongo was a well-educated young man, a journalist who had worked for Transparency International, and he set to work with a will, believing that Kenya really could change. He uncovered a massive government scam, which became known as the Anglo-Leasing (or Anglo-Fleecing) scandal. He slowly realized however that neither President Kibaki, whom he had believed in so whole-heartedly, nor any of his ministers wanted the scandal uncovered, primarily because they were its' main beneficiaries.

He taped incriminating conversations, and kept incriminating documents, and then in fear of his life fled to the UK, where he arrived on the doorstep of a journalist he barely knew asking for shelter. (Thus Michela Wrong our author enters the story). He eventually released his information, and while a huge scandal did unfold, very few heads rolled.

Wrong ties this to the growth of ethnic divisions in Kenya, pointing out that Moi was a Kalenjin, and his regime mainly assisted them, while the Kibaki regime, though it did preside over a growing economy, was perceived to mainly assist his people, the Kikuyu. John Githongo's special crime was thought to lie particuarly in the fact that he was a Kikuyu, and thus 'betrayed' his own people. The book takes us up through the explosion of ethnic tensions that marked the last elections.

So, in some respects a very depressing story. Ms Wrong clearly finds it so, making much of how wasteful aid is, what a hopeless case most of Africa is, etc etc. Personally, I didn't find it to be that way. The main point I think is that John Githongo did stand. And there were those who stood with him. As we see in North Africa at the moment (viva Benghazi, viva!) there has been an old way of doing things,and Africa is currently run by old people, familiar with these old ways. But I have hope: a new generation is coming. Perhaps it is just that it is a sunny morning, but look - Kibakis is one of these geriatrics, born 1931, Mugabe, 1924, Gbagbo 1945 - while John and all those with him are young.

Ms Wrong writes with a lovely clear lucid journalist's voice, and has a lovely turn of phrase. She did get me down with her old-Africa-hand despair, and by her typical white British way of dismissing white Africans. But whatever, it was an interesting and informative book.

I only arrived in Nairobi yesterday, and on the way from the airport I already noticed one of the small businesses she mentioned. A good introduction.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

THE CORRECTIONS by Jonathan Franzen


I read Franzen's most recent novel, FREEDOM, a couple of months ago. I enjoyed it so much that when I saw this one, which was his first big hit, in the library, I fell upon it and devoured it. And I have to report, it is tasty.

From the Dept. of This Guy Can Write A Long Sentence Like Noone Else:
(It's the thoughts of a son seeing his parents arrive at the airport)

He had time for one subversive thought about his parents' Nordic Pleasurelines shoulder bags – either Nordic Pleasurelines sent bags like these to every booker of its cruises as a cynical means of getting inexpensive walk-about publicity or as a practical means of tagging the cruise participants for greater ease of handling at embarkation points or as a benign means of building espirit de corps; or else Enid and Alfred had deliberately saved the bags from some previous Nordic Pleasurelines cruise, and, out a misguided sense of loyalty, had chosen to carry them on their upcoming cruise as well; and in either case Chip was appalled by his parents' willingness to make themselves vectors of corporate advertising – before he shouldered the bags himself and assumed the burden of seeing LaGuardia Airport and New York City and his life and clothes and body through the disappointed eyes of his parents.

I find this hilarious and I love it. The story is about a fairly dysfunctional family. We have mum and dad, Alfred and Enid Lambert, who live in the Midwest, and their three grown children, who have all fled to the East Coast. This little bit, also from the opening pages, will give you a taste of the kind of family this is:

To anyone who saw them averting their eyes from the dark-haired New Yorkers careering past them, to anyone who caught a glimpse of Alfred's straw fedora looming at the height of Iowa corn on Labour Day, or the yellow wool of the slacks stretching over Enid's outslung hip, it was obvious that they were midwestern and intimidated. But to Chip Lambert, who was waiting for them just beyond the security checkpoint, they were killers.

Chip feels a failure, having lost his job as an associate professor for sleeping with a student. His older brother Gary is rich and has a beautiful family but is finding success unexpectedly disappointing. His younger sister Denise is a chef whose career absorbed so much of her energy that she only late in life discovers that she is probably gay.

We move back and forth between the stories of each member of the family, each amazingly vividly imagined. The arc of the story is given by the father Alfred's slow decline into dementia, which forces the family to face various feelings they have long hidden about each other. There's also a strong strand of love and nostalgia for the Midwest, which I found quite compelling.

So, a very good book. But not quite as good as FREEDOM, I don't think.

He wrote THE CORRECTIONS ten years before FREEDOM, and it shows. It's clearly the work of a much younger writer, I think, being full of overly obvious metaphor, and rather overheated language on occasion (a season is described as “hurtling, hurtling towards winter” - oh dear). There's also a very dubious section where the character of Chip goes to Lithuania, and Franzen spends a lot of time making fun of Lithunia. Now, the book in general is in a comic vein, and he makes a lot of fun of America too, but it's very obvious he knows nothing about Lithuania, and I didn't really enjoy seeing a developing country being mocked in an ill-educated way, when the rest of the comedy in the book is so intelligently observed and so detailed.

But honestly, I can forgive anything to a man who can write like this:
(About a girl being approached by boys at university)
Julia wore the heads-up look of a squirrel convinced that somebody had stale bread in his pocket.

Monday, 7 March 2011

KNOTS AND CROSSES by Ian Rankin


I've read a number of Ian Rankin's crime novels, which are all set in Edinburgh and feature Detective John Rebus as the central character. When I say, a number, I mean a LARGE number, and all have been read for work.

They are not as totally rubbish as most crime fiction.

KNOTS AND CROSSES was in fact Rankin's first Rebus novel, and it is therefore interesting to read it last. Apparently, according to the author, he was attempting to write a modern Jeckyll and Hyde, and not a genre crime novel at all. This is odd, as in some ways it couldn't be more genre:

-its about the murder of little girls (yawn)
-it features a hard drinking detective (sigh)
-it gets stupidly personal at the end (please)

In other ways however, it's not especially genre. Rebus has complex emotional issues, and a full inner life, for example. For a while you are even supposed to think that he might be the murderer. He has a family life, he has gross sex scenes – he has all sorts of fallabilities that the Rebus of the later books, the genre Rebus, really does not.

It's as if the hard inner seed of a genre writer is in the book, and it wants out. Rankin was a Literature Phd when he wrote it, and you can see it; but the genre writer is there, just waiting to cut himself out of all his early grad student constraints.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

THE BRIEF AND WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz


“Of what import are brief, nameless lives . . . to Galactus?”
(Fantastic Four, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Vol 1, No 49, April 1966)

And so begins this wonderful novel. Followed by, bizarrely, an entire poem by Derek Walcott, an important Caribbean poet.

This gives you a kind of sense of what a seriously loopy book this is, verging wildly from the highly literary, to pop culture, from English to Spanish, from Trujillo's dictatorship in the Dominican Republic to contemporary New Jersey.

Oscar Wao is a fat guy who loves sci-fi to an unhealthy degree, and is permanently in hope of finding love with a lady. His story is intercut with that of his sister, who flees the US for their ancestral homeland of Dominican Republic, and with the stories of his grandfather and mother, and of what made them flee the DR (as he calls it) for America.

Oscar's grandfather was tortured and murdered by the Trujillo regime, because he refused to offer his oldest daughter up freely to Trujillo to be raped. Oscar's mother, the youngest daughter, was thus left an orphan. She grew up and was eventually forced to flee the DR after getting entangled in a stupid relationship with the husband of Trujillo's sister. Oscar's own story eventually leads him back to the DR, where he finally finds love (with an elderly prostitute) and is eventually murdered by her boyfriend's heavies.

Actually as I write it out it sounds like rather a miserable and melodramatic tale. But so sparkling and irreverent is the voice of the novelist, so sure the comedy, so accurate the observation – especially of the world of fat dorks – that in fact the book is a non-stop delight.

I was particularly struck by how Diaz managed to mix together the many aspects of his life - first and third world, pop and literary culture - into one coherent identity. This is something I certainly can't seem to achieve.

The poem that begins the novel, after talking about Derek Walcott's varied backgrounds, ends:

“I'm just a red nigger who love the sea,
I had a sound colonial education,
I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
and either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation”

PS. Zimbabwean? Want to feel a certain someone's not that bad? Check out Trujillo's dictatorship here. He eventually died in an assassination, but I must point out he had serious prostate problems too. . . Holding thumbs!

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

THE FIFTH WITNESS by Michael Connelly

I had to read this for work. I see it has not yet been released, so I'll say no more.

Just making sure to put it in the blog in the interests of keepin' it real.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

JULIET, NAKED by Nick Hornby


This little book begins in a toilet.

Duncan has dragged his girlfriend Annie to America on holiday to see the toilet because he is obsessed with the musician Tucker Crowe, who has not recorded any music in twenty years, retiring soon after a mysterious incident in this same toilet.

Duncan and Annie have been together for fifteen years. Annie is beginning to feel that, just as she initially drifted into the relationship, she ought now to drift out of it.

A new album of old Tucker Crowe material is released, and, primarily to irritate Duncan, Annie comments on it in an online forum of which he is an obsessive member. This impels Duncan to cheat on her and then sort of half-heartedly leave her. It also impels Tucker Crowe, astonishingly, to contact her, and say how much he appreciated her review.

Not very believably, she begins a correspondence with Crowe, who eventually visits her in England.

You may find that my plot summary there ends rather oddly, and the reason for that would be that the book itself ends oddly. It just sort of stutters to a close. I was left slightly confused as to what I was supposed to understand about the characters. Perhaps I just need to understand that Mr Hornby suddenly realized he had to get to the cleaners before they closed?

I enjoyed the presentation of the dangers of an easy relationship, and of finding yourself settling without ever making the decision to do so. I also really enjoyed the character of Duncan, who is a wonderfully believable 40-something music dork.

The whole book however was a bit like eating unsalted popcorn. It went down easy and was kind of fun, but didn't leave much of a mark.

LIFE AND FATE by Vasily Grossman

As the title suggests, LIFE AND FATE is a novel with a wide scope. It's a gigantic account of Stalinist Russia, mostly during the secon...