Tuesday, 30 August 2011

THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED by F. Scott Fitzgerald

THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED is a somewhat depressing and an irritatingly moralistic little book.

Set in New York in the early years of the twentieth century, it tells the story of Anthony Patch, a young man living a life of elegance on his trust fund as he waits for his wealthy grandfather to die. He falls madly in love with a noted beauty of the day, Gloria Gilbert, marries her, and they begin to live a life of endless parties and pleasure trips. Anthony continually attempts half-heartedly to find some kind of employment, but keeps being put off by the amount of work that is apparently involved in actually working.

The couple are cut out of the grandfather's will, spend their money unwisely, and eventually end up in ever smaller and less salubrious accommodation and society. Anthony becomes an alcoholic, while Gloria becomes pathetically fixated on her appearance.

Honestly, I don't read twentieth century fiction for a moral lesson! How irritating. We get it. Living like there's no tomorrow often has a consequence tomorrow.

The book is apparently based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's own unhappy marriage, and this is painfully evident. The novel absolutely drips with painful retrospection, with an attempt to dissect everything from the beginning in order to understand what went so horribly wrong. It is like having a drink with a friend after a messy break-up. As a side point, let me just ask: how much do you love yourself when you call a thinly veiled autobiography THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED. Honestly, get over it.

I have been inspired recently by the following: "When life gives you lemons - say fuck it and bail.” Wise words, though they do come from the movie FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL. The early nihilistic partying in this novel reminded me of this fine lesson, and I was sorry Fitzgerald felt he had to make everyone pay so direly for having a little fun.

Friday, 26 August 2011

ADRIAN MOLE: THE WILDERNESS YEARS by Sue Townsend

It's been a while since I read a book over night. I don't know if ADRIAN MOLE: THE WILDERNESS YEARS is all that gripping, but somehow I read it till 2am, and then when I woke up again at 4am finished it.

It is one of the sequels to Townsend's first great success, THE SECRET DIARY OF ADRIAN MOLE AGED 13 3/4. Adrian is now in his early twenties, and still just as self-obssessed and miserable as ever. His day job is in the civil service, but his real focus is his novel LO, THE FLAT HILLS OF MY HOMELAND, which is as bad as it sounds.

It's a very funny, immensely readable little novel, though I find it difficult to put my finger on quite what is so entertaining about it. I think it is partly that Adrian is so honest in his diary, revealing the embarrassing secrets and dreams that everyone has. It's also the occasional glimpses one gets of the people in his life, who in their reported dialogue and actions are so very different from Adrian's narrow view of them.

At one point he writes to his sister that a donkey he sees in Greece reminds him of their dog. This endeared him to me. I had to give up a cat when I left London, and I found that not only did other cats remind me of my cat, but so did dogs, the cuter Masaai cattle, and adolescent giraffes. My London cat was all over Nairobi.

Over the course of this diary, Adrian loses his job, realises his novel is not very good, gets dumped, and in general begins to grow up, which gives the book a sweet and satisfying narrative arc.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

BURNT TOAST ON SUNDAYS by Roland K Hill


BURNT TOAST ON SUNDAYS is a comic novel about the romantic misadventures of a young Zimbabwean farmer named Tom Burnham. Published in 1995, events in Zimbabwe have turned this frothy and fun book into a rather sad glimpse into a lost way of life.

The novel opens with Tom trying to make his own breakfast one Sunday morning. This goes so horribly wrong that he concludes he needs a wife. I know: how romantic. I hope Tom will marry me! What a charmer.

His friend Cliff organises a dance at his house, and Tom tests all the potential girls by having them each fry him an egg. No one makes the grade, and he decides to go on holiday to London. This in itself is an interesting perspective on a Zimbabwe I barely remember – the pre-diaspora country, in which going abroad is an event, rather than a routine, and where the airport is packed with tourists and multiple international airlines. In London he meets an English girl, who he invites to the farm to visit. Much hi-jinks ensue, involving rhinos and scorpions and white-water rafting. All ends happily of course with a wedding on the farm.

In the final scene, the English girl confesses she was unsure about living on the farm at first, but she accepts it, because 'the farm is you.' Well, the farm's probably not going to be him for too much longer, unless he has some very good government connections. Shame. If Tom's a real person, he's living in a semi in Slough right now.

While the book certainly has some flaws – some awkward issues of style, and an over-reliance on cliches – it is overall an entertaining read. It is famously very difficult when writing in a country without a strong literary tradition not to simply mimic dominant traditions from elsewhere, and I must applaud Mr Hill on writing a very Zimbabwean little book, and not a pastiche of English or American models. He manages to include rhinos, sunsets, and veldskoens without sounding at all like he is writing an exotic travelogue, an endeavour at which many finer writers have failed spectacularly.

In case you plan to buy this book, I should caution that it's price is probably out of your reach. I see on the inside front cover that it sold for $15,000. So it's also in its own way a window into a totally different period in Zim history. $15,000! Ah, hyperinflation. I almost kind of miss it.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

JOYCE GRENFELL REQUESTS THE PLEASURE by Joyce Grenfell

I am now reduced to reading celebrity memoir. And worse yet, a celebrity I have never even heard of: Joyce Grenfell. She was, it appears, famous in the 1950s as a monolguist. I can only say: monologuist?

Regular readers will understand from this that my Kindle has not yet arrived in Harare. I am thus reduced to reading whatever I can find on my parents' bookshelves. This wouldn't necessarily be a problem for someone else, as my parents own a lot of books, but unfortunately as my parents'child I have had an entire lifetime to read them. Thus, there is not much left. Thus, Joyce Grenfell.

In a move of striking originality, Grenfell begins her autobiography with her birth, which took place in a very nice part of London. Everything thereafter also seems to happen in a very nice part of London, unless it is happening in a very nice part of New York, or of Vancouver. Grenfell is born into a very wealthy family, and one of the more interesting aspects of this uninteresting book is an insight into the life of someone who does not ever need to work for a living. Her life appears to be a round of nannies and tea parties and dances. Family friends include theatre luminaries such as Noel Coward and Ivor Novello. Call me a cynic, but I'm going to go ahead and suggest that her success in show business may not have been down 100% to sheer talent and drive.

Here's a taster, a comment on her father's military service: “Like many men, he did not enjoy his time in the first world war.” Profound! And indicative of the book as a whole. Indeed, what I found most striking about this book was how very little Grenfell managed to share about her life, while writing a book about her life.

Even poor writers, when writing about themselves, usually manage to provide some insights; but this book is a miracle of emptiness. I wish I could give you some summary of her later life, and even reveal what after all a monologuist is, but I never got past adolescence, having to give up on Joyce Grenfell after the first hundred pages.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST by Adam Hochschild

I've reviewed KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST here for Africa Book Club. It's the history of Leopold II's brief period of control of what is to today the DRC, and makes for grim reading, recounting how the local people were in essence enslaved in order to produce huge amounts of rubber. Here's a snippet, in case you don't click through, to one rubber company employee's account of his day:
It was most interesting, lying in the bush watching the natives quietly at their day's work. Some women . . . were making banana flour by pounding up dried bananas. Men we could see building huts and engaged in other work, boys and girls running about, singing . . . I opened the game by shooting one chap through the chest. He fell like a stone . . . Immediately a volley was poured into the village.
The mind boggles. So appalling was the treatment of the people of the area that an outcry was raised in Europe. Leopold tries to silence this by sending a hand-picked Commission to 'investigate.' In a darkly comic turn of events, so horrified are Leopold's toadies by what the local people tell them, that they actually return, to Leopold's shock, an honest report!

People often lazily group missionaries and businessmen together as all part and parcel of one monolithic colonial machine. This book most interestingly debunks this myth, highlighting the huge role the missionaries played in trying to protect local people from the business interests of Europe. The above, terribly sad picture, is taken by a mission lady on her verandah. I'm sorry to have to say that this gentleman is looking at the hand of his five year old daughter. Hands were cut off because soldiers needed to prove that they had not 'wasted' ammunition, and needed to prove they had actually killed one person for every bullet used.

Much more, obviously, in my full review here.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE by James Cain

This is a creepy little novella.

A drifter named Frank stops at a petrol station. But in this kind of novel it is not a petrol station, oh no. It is a roadside joint.

In this roadside joint he meets the wife of the owner, Cora, and they immediately start a torrid affair, with strong overtones of violence. At one point, he mashes her lips. Apparently, this means kissing. At another point, he rips her. This apparently means tearing off her clothes.

They decide to kill off her husband, and on their second attempt succeed. They think they have accomplished the perfect crime, but the police are on to them, and they quickly sell each other out in an attempt to save themselves. They get off on a technicality but their relationship is now poisoned by mistrust. They eventually patch their relationship up, but at this point Cora dies in a car accident, and the police are only to happy to now accuse him of murder. The novel ends with Frank on death row.

So, super cheery! I would have put some actual quotes in, because there were doozies. But my Kindle is BUST. Yup, I've only had it for four months and the screen is BUST. I was all ready to be outraged. But Amazon is sending me a NEW one, for FREE, to ZIMBABWE. This sort of boggles my mind.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Walter M Miller


I have concluded upon reading this book that humanity, taken in a mass, is in fact relatively sane.

A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ begins with a young monk fasting in a desert. He comes across a hole in the ground which opens into a room, labelled FALLOUT SHELTER - OCCUPANCY 15. He is terrified. He has heard of fallouts, which in the distant past killed huge numbers of people. He pictures them as large and fiery dragons. As his grasp of what is referred to as pre-Deluge English is not great (he struggles with how nouns work, and thus cannot understand the difference between a house cat and a cat house) he fears the shelter is full of fallouts, just waiting to come out.

In short, this is sci-fi. And my favourite kind too, being post-apocalypse sci-fi!

Anyway, the cave is full of technical documents, and the monk's order is one set up by a certain Leibowitz, who, on surviving the Deluge, set out to preserve humanity's memory. During the great Simplification, after the Deluge, books and learning were understandably treated with suspicion, and so the order struggles to protect the physical remnants of that memory. The documents are thus a great find.

The book moves forward in history two or three times, on each occasion by a few centuries, as human learning is rediscovered, and it ends, predictably, with another nuclear disaster. To tell you the truth I found the last half a little dull, and did a fair bit of skipping, as there were lots of scenes where men shouted at each other about military tactics.

However, it was an interesting immersion in the concerns of the 1960s. The immediacy of their fear of nuclear annihilation is fascinating. No doubt the apocalypse will happen, and I personally am totally ready to survive it (eat leather, eat other people, drink urine, you name it); but I am encouraged that we have all managed to hold it together so far, and that we've had a good half century without species-wide suicide. Let's go humanity!

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

HOW TO WIN THE CAINE PRIZE


We had an interesting conversation in the comments on my post about the Caine Prize:

1) Why do so many successful African writers live outside Africa? (are they African writers or 'African' writers?)
2) Does the Caine, and the literary world generally, favour stories from Africa about poverty?

I've nothing further on 1), but I did a little research on 2), and found that every winning story for the last three years was about poor people, and in particular about poor children. 2011's winning text is linked to in my previous post, but here's 2010's, Stickfighting by Olufemi Terry, and 2009's, Waiting by EC Osondu

I've struggled to get much detail about what the stories from previous years were about, but I think this is certainly an interesting tendency for at least the last three.

I should be very clear here that I don't mean to bash on the Caine prize. I'm really grateful and glad it exists as a platform for African writers. I'm just wondering what this tendency mean - if stories of the poor are perceived as being the 'real' Africa; or if it's simply chance; or if perhaps the majority of stories submitted were in fact about poverty anyway (which would interesting in itself) . . . .

Monday, 8 August 2011

BABYVILLE by Jane Green


I decided it was time to read some junk.

BABYVILLE tells the story of three friends, and the impact that motherhood has on their lives. It is divided into three sections, each dealing with one woman. The first is Julia, a highflying TV producer who is obssessed with having a baby, convinced that this will save her relationship with boyfriend Mark. The next is Maeve, who has never wanted a baby, until this same Mark impregnates her; and the last is Sam, who actually has a baby, and is not adjusting well to life as a stay-at-home mother.

Initially, I found this really kind of a fun book. The tone is chatty and straightforward, and the pages fly by as in a book for children. Within the first couple of pages, it is entirely clear to the reader that while Mark is a nice man, Julia and he ought not to be together. Brilliant. There is no difficulty as to what is going on; everything is clear and easy to understand. This is much better than crappy old real life, where, at least in my sad experience, 90% of the difficulty of any relationship lies in its definition. (How many debates have we all had, along the lines of, oh god I don't know, is it A She is the not the One, or B She is the One, and I am too scared to admit it, or C I'm just not that into her, but this fills the time till I meet the One, or D What about that girl I met in a bar one time, maybe she is the One) In the much better world of BABYVILLE there are no such complex questions as to definition; reality is stable and any reasonable person would agree as to its nature.

BABYVILLE is also a hilarious visit to a very different wold of femininity from the one I live in.
Sam is – usually – the laziest of all of them when it comes to superficial appearance. The most makeup she'll wear is tinted moisturizer, mascara, and pale-pink lipgloss.
I love the suggestion that this is just hardly any makeup at all. Or, when a woman goes into a restaurant in New York, we are proudly told:
She has no qualms about eating on her own
I mean, do people have qualms about eating on their own in restaurants? I didn't even know that was something one could feel concerned about.

I am sorry to report however that by the end I ceased to find this book very fun. After a while it just started to make me feel a bit dirty. It's absolutely and entirely predicated on the belief that men and women are very different, and that, foolishly though you may try to avoid it, your biology is your destiny. This is a common, if stupid, idea, but what made it unsettling in this context was the very strong presumption thoughout the book that mothers love their children far more than fathers. This was definitely not true of my mum and dad, and is not true of the mothers and fathers I personally know. I found it a bizarre and even a rather unpleasantly old-fashioned view, which made the whole book, while sugary, leave for me a sour aftertaste.

I just can't end without including this extract, where a character we are supposed to admire recommends a movie. I have looked carefully at context, and it appears to be unironic:
"It was an incredible piece of cinema," Chris agrees, "So realistic, it reminded me of Titanic. The realism and the hugeness. What do you think, Sam?"
What do you think, indeed.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

LONESOME DOVE by Larry McMurtry


This one is 900 pages, but I promise you it goes down incredibly quick, like a cold glass of water after a long ride across the dusty plains.

As you may suspect from this rather tortured similie, it's another western novel. Bizarrely, my third this month. I can't recall when, if ever, I've read a novel of the American West, and now I've done three in three weeks. This has happened largely by chance, but by about page 700 I was completely ready to chuck it all in and be a cowboy. I am so up for drinking buttermilk, eating sourdough biscuits, and spitting tobacco, it's not true. Also I want to go round calling people whores like that's totally acceptable. All I need is a gender change, and for the American West still to exist.

LONESOME DOVE, which won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize, tells the story of a cattle drive which starts in Texas and crosses over 3000 miles to arrive in Montana, establishing the first cattle ranch in that state. It's a vast novel, and there are many ways you could see it. On one level, it's a novel of the American landscape, taking us from the heat and dryness of the South to the snow and mountains of the West, and as the group struggle through rivers, across dry plains, and round tiny towns, it's a monument to the sheer scale of the country. On another level, it's a kind of elegy for what was lost when the settlers arrived. The leaders of the drive, Gus and Call, were once Texas Rangers, who existed to keep settlers safe from Indians. Now that they have 'won' they have time to consider what may have been lost. The book is full of encounters with various small Native American groups trying to find a way to survive. The Rangers, who knew the plains when they were full of buffalo – so full you could ride for a hundred miles along a single herd – are horrified by what seems to be the disappearance of that animal. They pass now roads of bones, the only remnants of these herds.

On another level, and this is the level on which its most engaging, it's a story of the relationships of the group, from Newt, the yongest, newest hand, to Sean, the new Irish immigrant, to Jake Spoon, the gambler on the run from the law, to Lorena, the prostitute accompanying Jake, to Call, the old Ranger who feels his life's work is over, and that it has largely been a waste. There's friendship, and enmity, and personal growth, and death. Here's my tip: DON'T TRUST MCMURTRY. You might think, oh, this character's too important to die, that character's too central to this plot arc to die, he can't kill them, he won't kill them. Oh yes he can. OH YES HE WILL.

It's a very funny novel. Here's a man who own a tawdry saloon in a tiny town:
Once as a boy he had carried slops in a restaurant in New Orleans that actually used tableclothes, a standard of excellence that haunts him still.
Here's Call, on the subject of when to ride over into Mexico on raids:
Men he'd ridden with for years were dead and buried, or at least dead, because they'd crossed the river under a full moon.
I think dealing with that inconvenience, people who aren't men, is very difficult when writing about the profoundly male world of the American West, and it is here that McMurty stumbles. There is a gang rape scene written from the victim's perspective, that I found very dubious, and some odd observations – here's one, on a prostitute named Maggie:
Maggie hadn't had it in her to refuse a man. It was the only reason she was a whore, Call had decided – she just couldn't turn away any kind of love.
What total nonsense. I had to stop at this point and do a quick Google to find out if this book was written in 1986 or 1886.

However, overall, a great novel. I strongly recommend it, and am currently trying to restrain myself from pouring a glass of buttermilk, whatever that is, and starting right in on the sequel.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Zimbabwean Wins The Caine Prize

As a Zimbabwean literary blog, it is appalling that we have missed out on a major piece of Zimbabwean literary news . . . a Zimbabwean has won the Caine!

The Caine is often described as Africa's Booker, and is awarded annually to the best short story from the continent. It was last won by a Zimbabwean in 2004 (Brian Chikwava, who went on to write HARARE NORTH.) This makes two Zimbabwean wins in eight years, not bad for a country holding just 10 million of African's 1 billion people. In short: ha! We may not have an economy but we still have writers! Who needs a stupid economy anyway.

Full text of the story is here.

As a side point, I see NoViolet Bulowayo has lived in the US since 1999, but says she longs to be writing back in Africa. I think it is interesting how many writers defined as African live in the US and UK. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is another one. I suspect this is primarily a question of economics, but I do wonder what effect - if any - this is having on the literature of the continent . . .

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Our Monthly Marcel


It's a new month, and so time for a new monthly Marcel . . .

"But certain favourite roles are played by us so often before the public and rehearsed so carefully when we are alone that we find it easier to refer to their fictitious testimony than to that of a reality which we have almost entirely forgotten."

Marcel Proust, IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME

Monday, 1 August 2011

IF THIS IS A MAN by Primo Levi


Primo Levi was an Italian Jew who spent eleven months in Auschwitz right at the end of the Second World War, before the camp was liberated by the Red Army in January 1945.

Six hundred and fifty Italian Jews entered the camp on Levi's shipment, and only twenty left the camp alive. As you can imagine, his account of his time in the camps is very grim. The inmates were underfed, underclothed, and overworked.

The number assigned to Levi was 174,517, which was tatooed on his arm. This meant he had a very high number; nobody seems to have survived from before about 150,000, and there were only a tiny handful left from before 160,000. Among the most interesting aspects of the book is a discussion of what made it possible for someone to survive: great physical strength, or an ability to get on the good side of the warders, or an eye for every possibility, or a willingness to abandon any moral scruples.

Levi felt that he was clearly not among those who would survive, and prepared himself accordingly. Luckily however his BSc was in Chemistry, and the camp needed chemists, so after an exceedingly bizarre 'exam' where a well-dressed German chemist questioned the starving Levi about carbon, he is allowed to enter the lab. This easier work essentially saves his life.

He contracts scarlet fever, and is in the camp hospital when he hears the rumour that everyone in the camp will be marched away, as the Russians are coming and thus the end of the war is near. Levi comments:
The news excited no direct emotion in me. Already for many months I had no longer felt any pain, joy or fear, except in that detached and distant manner characteristic of the Lager, which might be described as conditional: if I still had my former sensitivity, I thought, this would be an extremely moving moment.
Much of the book is recounted in this distant manner, reminding me - perhaps not surprisingly - of Robert Graves First World War memoir, GOODBYE TO ALL THAT; his detachment was so complete he could barely recall any of his four years of war after the first three months – though those three months were quite enough, haunting him for a decade after.

The ten days between the departure of the Germans and the arrival of the Russians are vividly described, as the infectitious diseases patients scour the camp for any remaining food, and die in great numbers from the cold. One man dies and is frozen in the act of digging for potatoes. This is a story so grim as to seem almost unreal, and touchingly, Levi, who lived through it, seems to find it so also.
Today, at this very moment as I sit writing at a table, I myself am not convinced that these things really happened
.

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...