Monday, 31 December 2012

BOOKS 0F 2012

This year is a sad comedown on last. I've only read 49 books. However, looking back on the list there was still much to delight. My favourite books of the year:
PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT by Phillip Roth: a horrifying and hilarious meditation on a young man's life, mostly as it concerns masturbation
A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens: how did I live this long without ever reading this?
THE WAY WE LIVE NOW by Anthony Trollope: it's so absorbing, it's like an anaesthetic for your actual life.

I also enjoyed non-fiction for perhaps the first time ever this year: highlights include STANLEY by Time Jeal and THE GUN by CJ Chivers.

There was little that was dire, but I must mention the horrible BLIND ASSASSIN, by Margaret Atwood. It was totally humourless and utterly forgettable. So forgettable I really can't tell you want the plot was.

In other bad news I only managed 34% female authors. Gender traitor!

I have put this post together in two minutes, as I am leaving the for the airport, but wanted to post on the last day of this lovely year; but I quite enjoyed glancing at old posts, and meeting myself; it's like seeing a stranger you only sort of remember.


1 THE MAPLES STORIES by John Updike
2 RICH DAD, POOR DAD by Robert Kiyosaki
3 O PIONEERS! by Willa Cather
4 A COLOSSAL FAILURE OF COMMON SENSE by Lawrence McDonald
5 THE CATCHER IN THE RYE by JD Salinger
6 ROBINSON CRUSOE by Daniel Defoe
7 THE BLIND ASSASSIN by Margaret Atwood
8 THE PRIME MINISTER by Anthony Trollope
9 THE SLAP by Christos Tsiolkas
10 THE JOY LUCK CLUB by Amy Tan
11 GEORGE PASSANT by CP Snow
12 TIME OF HOPE by CP Snow
13 THE SADDEST STORY by Ford Maddox Ford
14 AMERICAN PASTORAL by Philip Roth
15 THE QUIET AMERICAN by Graham Greene
16 A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens
17 THE GUN by CJ Chivers
18 AN EDUCATION by Lynn Barber
19 A PASSAGE TO INDIA by EM Forster
20 STANLEY: AFRICA'S GREATEST EXPLORER by Tim Jeal
21 NIGHTMARE ABBEY by Thomas Love Peacock
22 THE VICAR OF WAKEFIELD by Oliver Goldsmith
23 ANY HUMAN HEART by William Boyd
24 THE WAY WE LIVE NOW by Anthony Trollope
25 LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE by Nancy Mitford
26 THE BLESSING by Nancy Mitford
27 THE PURSUIT OF LOVE by Nancy Mitford
28 THE RADETZKY MARCH by Joseph Roth
29 MEMOIRS OF A DUTIFUL DAUGHTER by Simone de Beauvoir
30 COMMUTERS by Emily Gray Tedrowe
31 BLOOD MERIDIAN by Cormac McCarthy
32 A PRIMATE’S MEMOIR by Robert M Sapolsky
33 CREATION: DARWIN, HIS DAUGHTER AND HUMAN EVOLUTION by Randal Keynes
34 THE LINE OF BEAUTY by Alan Hollinghurst
35 THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP by John Irving
36 THE AGE OF INNOCENCE by Edith Wharton
37 THE STORY OF AN AFRICAN FARM by Olive Schreiner
38 THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT by Quentin Crisp
39 A CHANGE OF CLIMATE by Hilary Mantel
40 JANE AUSTEN: A LIFE by Claire Tomalin
41 ETHAN FROMME by Edith Wharton
42 CRANFORD by Elizabeth Gaskell
43 FAREWELL by Balzac
44 HOW TO LIVE: A LIFE OF MONTAIGNE by Sarah Bakewell
45 SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END by Diana Athill
46 ZOO CITY by Lauren Beukes
47 BRING UP THE BODIES by Hilary Mantel
48 JOY by Jonathan Lee
49 HOPE: A TRAGEDY by Shalom Auslander

A CHANGE OF CLIMATE by Hilary Mantel


I just finished another Mantel, the Booker winning BRING UP THE BODIES, a highly poetic historical novel. This book couldn’t be more different – in fact it seems to have been written by a totally different person. It’s a contemporary story about a personal drama.

A young man is essentially forced by his father to become a missionary. His father in incensed by his son’s desire to study geology, as he is fiercely opposed to evolution. The young man does not ask for support from anyone, and eventually surrenders:
Because he was ashamed of his father’s stupidity, ashamed of the terms of the quarrel. Because in families, you never think of appealing for help to the outside world; your quarrels are too particular, too specific, too complex. And because you never think of these reasonable solutions, till it is far too late.

An interesting analysis of family life. In Africa, where they go as missionaries, the young man and his wife experience a horrific life changing event. The author is British, so no surprises as to what the event is: oh yes, it’s child abuse. Of course. The British are completely obsessed with paedophilia.

The book flashes back and forth between past and future, and while always engaging, because Mantel is a fine writer, it never quite reaches a satisfying completion or resolution. There is however this great line, which I rather treasure:
Again he twitched at his belt, settling his bulk comfortably, as if his gut were something apart from him, a pet animal he kept.
I know many people keeping that kind of pet.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

JANE AUSTEN: A LIFE by Claire Tomalin


As with many people I have a particular soft spot for Jane Austen. I’m sure literary critics would disagree, but for me she always seems to be the first really modern woman: standing apart, thinking for herself. She’s the first light on the horizon, and it’s deeply depressing it took that many generations of civilization to spawn a lady like her for us to look up to.

Austen was born into a clergyman’s large family. She remained unmarried throughout her life, and was very close to her sister, only finding some measure of success in her writing fairly late. Not that late, however, as she was dead in her early forties. This detailed and well researched biography exploded a couple of preconceptions I had about Austen.

I had always thought her novels, which are fairly narrow in external incident, reflected the placid world in which she grew up. I was surprised to see that in fact the families she knew well were far from dull, with slave owners, madness, adultery, and so forth. Her closest cousin in fact fled the French Revolution and led a most exotic life, taking her retarded child around the world, absolutely none of which appears in her novels. It is interesting to see that the restrained world she created was a conscious artistic choice, rather than a rural spinster’s necessity.

While her novels' themes are profound and wide reaching, at the level of plot the novels are mostly romances. It is thus easy to believe that Austen must have wanted to be married. From her letters, it is clear that for a while she was much taken with a young Irishman, and that they were not married only because neither had any money. This seems like it could be rather an awful sad story, worthy of a bad movie (step in Anne Hathaway, horrifying casting in BECOMING JANE). However, her sister Cassandra later made it clear that Jane felt a kind of triumph over married ladies, and in one of her letters she speaks of one of her young sister-in-laws as a ‘poor animal’ who will be exhausted by the age of 30. She knew what she was talking about; she lost four sisters-in-law to childbirth. During this period it was normal to have a baby every eighteen months. Thus, for example, one of these sisters-in-law who married at eighteen had eleven babies before dying in labour at the ripe old age of thirty five. From this perspective, the idea of the poor young Irishman seems a good deal less romantic. How could she have found time to think, let alone write some of the finest novels in the English language, if she’d been pregnant and breastfeeding and surrounded by toddlers for twenty years – if she was lucky enough to live that long at all?

I did not expect this to be my response to a biography of Jane Austen, but all I can say is; THANK GOD FOR BIRTH CONTROL.

Friday, 28 December 2012

A number of novellas

I listened to these while driving around the South African province of Mpumalanga over the course of two months, along with THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, reviewed previously.

ETHAN FROMME
God, what can I say. I read it when I was about fifteen, and I still haven’t recovered. It’s no less painful on a second reading twenty years later.

CRANFORD
A rare case where the TV show is better than the novel. I usually love Elizabeth Gaskell, but this I found a bit sentimental. Yes I blubbed, but I did not respect myself for blubbing. It was interestingly modern, in that it was more a series of interconnected stories than a novel.

FAREWELL
I mean, we know I like the Victorians, but this was too much even for me. It’s a bizarre and sexist novella, in which some woman loses her lover to war. Her last word to him is the creative ‘farewell,’ and the loss is so great she loses her mind, only retaining that one word. The lover survives a Siberian prison, and comes upon her by chance. He is so upset when he cannot make her sane that he decides to kill her, and it all gets more inappropriate from there. The best part was the scene where she loses her lover. It’s during Napoleon’s slow retreat from Russia during the winter, and is unbearably sad, with men so exhausted that they choose to lie down to rest despite the fact that the Russians are coming and they will surely freeze to death.

Thanks to Librivox

Thursday, 27 December 2012

HOW TO LIVE: A LIFE OF MONTAIGNE by Sarah Bakewell


Montaigne was a Frenchman of the eighteenth century , who wrote a series of essays with titles such as:
OF FRIENDSHIP
OF CANNIBALS
OF THE CUSTOM OF WEARING CLOTHES
HOW WE CRY AND LAUGH FOR THE SAME THINGS
OF NAMES
OF SMELLS
OF CRUELTY
OF THUMBS
HOW OUR MIND HINDERS ITSELF
OF DIVERSION
OF COACHES
OF EXPERIENCE

He wrote 107 of such essays, and on these his reputation rests. This is in part due to the content of the essays, and in part due to their form. Montaigne joins Shakespeare as being among the first to write directly of our divided experience as individuals, to express what now seems to us self-evident – the contradictory inner life of each person. Bakewell explains: “Montaigne and Shakespeare have each been held up as the first truly modern writers, capturing that distinctive modern sense of being unsure where you belong, who you are, and what you are expected to do.”

How modern is this:
I have seen no more evident monstrosity and miracle in the world than myself. We became habituated to anything strange by use and time; but the more I frequent myself and know myself, the more my deformity astonishes me, and the less I understand myself.

He describes much that is common human experience, such as finding famous sites, when they are at last seen, almost imaginary:
Something similar happened to Freud in Athens when he saw the Acropolis. ‘So all this really does exist, just as we learned at school!’ he exclaimed, and almost immediately thereafter felt the conviction: ‘What I see here is not real.’

This book is more or less a biography of Montaigne, but the author has attempted to make it more appealing by framing it in terms of questions as to how to live, answered from his work. This is only intermittently successful. Montaigne had a distinctly odd childhood, having been spoken to only in Latin up to the age of six, which meant that pretty much only his tutor could speak to him. He went on to be a magistrate, before at the age of 37 ‘retiring’ to his father’s estates to write his essays. He was actually supposed to be managing those estates, but he mostly left that to his mum.

He is very much interested in being free of constraints, such as estate management:
No prison has received me, not even for a visit. Imagination makes the sight of one, even from the outside, unpleasant to me. I am so sick for freedom that if anyone should forbid me access to some corner of the Indies, I should live distinctly less comfortably

One of this primary suggestions as to how to live comes from Montaigne’s close brush with death, which he was surprised to find was in fact a gentle and easy experience. From then on, he “tried to import some of death’s delicacy and buoyancy into life. ‘Bad spots’ were everywhere, he wrote in a late essay. We do better to ‘slide over this world a bit lightly and on the surface.’”

The book’s charm comes in part from the window it provides onto his period. He saw the plague whip through rural France, so quickly and fiercely that he often saw sick people dig their own graves and lie in them awaiting death. It was a time of great religious warfare:
For today, to mug one’s neighbor, massacre ones’ nearest relatives, rob the altars, profane the churches, rape women and young girls, ransack everybyody, is the ordinary practice of a Leaguer and the infallible mark of a zealous Catholic; always to have religion and the mass on one’s lips, but atheism and robbery in one’s heart, and murder and blood on one’s hands.
Apparently things haven’t changed as much as we would have liked.

Apparently at that time they believed that sex with your wife should be as cautious as possible. Montaigne quotes Aristotle: “A man . . . should touch his wife prudently and soberly, lest if he careeses her too lasciviously the pleasure should transport her outside the bounds of reason.” They also believed that too much pleasure for a woman could make the sperm curdle within her. I just love it that they have such confidence in their powers. That probably is my problem, that sex has just transported me beyond the bounds of reason that once too often.

The closest that Montaigne came to in terms of an answer of how to live was in his last essay, which apparently Virginia Woolf was fond of quoting (though it seemed to do her little good):
Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.
Bakewell comments, interestingly:
Either this is not an answer at all, or it is the only possible answer.

Anyway, Montaigne has been much loved through the centuries, with one critic commenting:
His book is the touchstone of a sound mind. If a man dislikes it, you may be sure that he has some defect of the heart or understanding
.

I feel that way about quite a few books. Some random person opens their mouth at a party about one of these books, to say something stupid, and I just have to cross them right off the list.

SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END by Diana Athill


SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END begins in an easy chatty manner, with Athill looking out the window, watching dogs play. She comments:
I have always wanted a pug and now I can’t have one, because buying a puppy when you are too old to take it for walks is unfair.
Then she talks about having recently ordered a tree fern, which turned out to be just a seedling:
Whether tree ferns grow quickly or slowly I don’t know, but even if it is quickly, it is not possible that I shall ever see this one playing the part I envisaged in our garden
.
Athill is clearly an elderly lady, and this it emerges is her theme:
We have, however, contrived to extend our falling away so much that it is often longer than our development, so what goes on in it and how to manage it is worth considering. Book after book has been written about being young, and even more of them about the elaborate and testing experiences that cluster around procreation, but there is not much on record about falling away. Being well advanced in that process, and just having had my nose rubbed in it by pugs and tree ferns, I say to myself: ‘ Why not have a go at it?” So I shall.

It’s true there is little in literature about being old, despite the fact that this will soon be a very long period of our ever longer lives, so I was interested to hear her perspective.

The main thing I gained from this novel is that, at least for Athill, as we grow older, we grow more accepting of death, which is comforting. I did struggle somewhat with the extent to which she drew on her response to her parents’ death as a model. Both her parents died when she was in her sixties and they in her eighties, so with respect I think she has little idea as to what early loss of those two people can be.

I strongly suspect Athill was a bit of a looker, because much of her book is taken up with her lovers. One, for a relatively brief period, was a man Sam, and she comments: “after his death Sam became more vivid in my mind than many of my more important dead. I saw him with photographic clarity – still do.” I love that phrase – ‘my more important dead’ – it seems to me to really capture what it means to have lived a long time. Thankfully my list of important dead is short, and I am not sure if I want to live long enough for it to become long.

Curiously, as with Montaigne, a biography of whom I will review next, she seems to come to some sort of conclusion around life being worth living in and of itself. At the end, of the fern, she explains that it is growng fast, and comments:
I was right in thinking that I will never see it being a tree, but I underestimated the pleasure of watching it being a fern. It was worth buying.




SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END by Diana Athill


SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END begins in an easy chatty manner, with Athill looking out the window, watching dogs play. She comments:
I have always wanted a pug and now I can’t have one, because buying a puppy when you are too old to take it for walks is unfair.
Then she talks about having recently ordered a tree fern, which turned out to be just a seedling:
Whether tree ferns grow quickly or slowly I don’t know, but even if it is quickly, it is not possible that I shall ever see this one playing the part I envisaged in our garden
.
Athill is clearly an elderly lady, and this it emerges is her theme:
We have, however, contrived to extend our falling away so much that it is often longer than our development, so what goes on in it and how to manage it is worth considering. Book after book has been written about being young, and even more of them about the elaborate and testing experiences that cluster around procreation, but there is not much on record about falling away. Being well advanced in that process, and just having had my nose rubbed in it by pugs and tree ferns, I say to myself: ‘ Why not have a go at it?” So I shall.

It’s true there is little in literature about being old, despite the fact that this will soon be a very long period of our ever longer lives, so I was interested to hear her perspective.

The main thing I gained from this novel is that, at least for Athill, as we grow older, we grow more accepting of death, which is comforting. I did struggle somewhat with the extent to which she drew on her response to her parents’ death as a model. Both her parents died when she was in her sixties and they in her eighties, so with respect I think she has little idea as to what early loss of those two people can be.

I strongly suspect Athill was a bit of a looker, because much of her book is taken up with her lovers. One, for a relatively brief period, was a man Sam, and she comments: “after his death Sam became more vivid in my mind than many of my more important dead. I saw him with photographic clarity – still do.” I love that phrase – ‘my more important dead’ – it seems to me to really capture what it means to have lived a long time. Thankfully my list of important dead is short, and I am not sure if I want to live long enough for it to become long.

Curiously, as with Montaigne, a biography of whom I will review next, she seems to come to some sort of conclusion around life being worth living in and of itself. At the end, of the fern, she explains that it is growng fast, and comments:
I was right in thinking that I will never see it being a tree, but I underestimated the pleasure of watching it being a fern. It was worth buying.




Wednesday, 26 December 2012

ZOO CITY by Lauren Beukes


This is African sci-fi. Its set in a future dystopic Johannesburg. The premise is brilliant: certain people, who have committed crimes, have seen their guilt suddenly become manifest in the shape of animals. They need to remain close to these animals, or they suffer excruciating pain, and they develop close relationships to these creatures.

These people are known as the animaled, and some of the best parts of the book are the Wikipedia and IMDB entries inserted at random on the subject. We learn that one Aghan warlord has a penguin, a famous rapper has a hyena (later revealed to have just been a prop, intended to make him seem dangerous), and that as punishment in Indian jails, the animals are separated from the animaled.

Our lead character is a woman who is animaled with a sloth. She travels through Joburg trying to find a lost teenager she has been employed to locate, and we get to see much of Joburg re-imagined. Here is on one thing that has not changed in this imagined future: the walls of middle class homes
Not so much keeping the world out as keeping the festering middle class paranoia in.

The difficulty in this novel is unfortunately the plot. It’s long and complex, and full of characters we don’t care about. It’s an unavoidable truth that premises are often easier than plots, and it’s a truth that often trips up the sci-fi writer. Lauren Beukes creates a great world, with interesting characters, but, in may opinion, fails to string them together. All the same, I very much admire this book. It’s an attempt at a difficult genre in an unusual setting, and is a real contribution to the contemporary literature of our large continent.


BRING UP THE BODIES by Hilary Mantel


Hilary Mantel won the Booker prize two years In a row, first for WOLF HALL, and then for this novel, BRING UP THE BODIES, which is the sequel.

The books follow the story of Cromwell , a man of lowly birth who rose to be one of Henry VII’s main advisers, helping him from one wife to the next. WOLF HALL covered the rise of Anne Bolyen; BRING UP THE BODIES tells the story of her fall.

One thing I find very enjoyable about these novels is the way in which they grow out a single national sensibility. They are just drenched in a kind of Englishness, a single way of looking at the world, which is I think - with international travel, immigration, and all the other flotsam and jetsam of globalization - growing increasingly rare. Here she is on the spring:
We are coming to the sweet season of the year, when the air is mild and the leaves pale, and lemon cakes are flavoured with lavender: egg custards, barely set, infused with a sprig of basil; elderflowers simmered in a sugar syrup and poured over halved strawberries.

It’s just gorgeously written, sentence for sentence; here’s shutting up the house
And now night falls on Austin Friars. Snap of bolts, click of key in the lock, rattle of strong chain across wicket, and the great bar fallen across the main gate. The boy Dick Purser lets out the watchdogs. The pounce and race, they snap at the moonlight, they flop under the fruit trees, heads on paws and ears twitching. When the house is quiet – when all his houses are quiet – then dead people walk about on the stairs.

It’s a beautiful evocation of a very detailed imagined world, Cromwell providing a kind of window on the sixteenth century. If I have a difficulty with the book it is that the world is better imagined than Cromwell himself. He really is a window, with little internal life – or little that I cared about. These ‘dead people on the stairs’ are his deceased children, who we keep going back to, and about whom I did not care. This is a rare false note in a very lovely novel.

It’s also very funny. Here we are on a scandal:
And if all the people who say they were there had really been there, then the dregs of London would have drained to the one spot, the goals emptied of thieves, the beds empty of whores, and all the lawyers standing on the shoulders of the butchers to get a better look.
And here’s a random man:
. . a man who stands by, smirking and stroking his beard; he thinks he looks enigmatic, but instead he looks as if he’s pleasuring himself

Sunday, 23 December 2012

JOY by Jonathan Lee


This novel is about a lawyer on the last day of her life. She plans to commit suicide, and one strand of the book follows her through that day with that knowledge within her. The other strands are contributed by the people who know her, who talk about the day in retrospect.

The main strength of this book lies in the powerful imagining of Joy’s internal life. It’s is as depressing a subject as HOPE: A TRAGEDY, which I read last, and yet it is at least as much about human endeavor, and possibility, as it is about meaningless and failure.

The other strands were less successful. She has a long on-and-off relationship with a man named Peter, who is presented as more or less a horrible manipulator. There is a particularly unsuccessful character, called Samir, who works in her office gym, and is an immigrant which apparently means he is an idiot. It's interesting that the novel is written by a man, yet the best imagined character is a woman.

So some issues around caricature, but overall an enjoyable and engaging novel. There is also a rather charming evocation of office life. Here’s Peter:
. . . seeing the office as a sanctuary, a place where the wider world was both abbreviated and improved. Beautiful women. Pleasant furnishings. A range of enjoyable biscuits.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

HOPE: A TRAGEDY by Shalom Auslander


Good title, isn’t it? Also, it came highly recommended as one of the best books of 2012. THESE PEOPLE NEED TO SMOKE LESS CRACK.

Sensitive readers may be able to observe from the capitalized sentence that I may not have liked this book. Which I don’t. It involves this Jewish guy (and you will understand by the end of the sentence why I need to mention his ethnicity) who buys a nice farm house, and then finds Anne Frank in the attic. This sounds like it might be a funny set up, huh? WELL IT’S NOT. His middle class marriage is falling apart, and Anne Frank puts great pressure on it. Eventually in a useless way he loses his marriage and his job and dies in a fire. Richly deserved. This is book is possibly the apogee of that strand in contemporary fiction which uses a useless/purposeless/inadequate central character as a metaphor for the human condition. It’s depressing and annoying and more importantly makes for a boring book.

It’s also gratingly irritating that this very well-off middle class person feels that he is having a tough time due to the Holocaust. He’s immensely privileged, which truth he plays lip service to, and yet it never seems to penetrate his self-indulgent obsession with his great-grandparents experience. The part where I really lost my junk was where he asked:
“People in Holocaust books and movies were always worrying about their papers: getting them, not getting them, . . . What were papers anyway? Papers like what, like a passport?”
Also, and this is not entirely fair, he likes to go on and on about his gluten intolerance, an affliction which always annoys me anyway.

Reading back over these last two paragraphs I feel guilty about being so mean about this book. So let me mention some rather good parts. Here’s a reasonable definition about how I feel about god:
Kugel could never believe in God, but he could never not believe in him either; there should be a God, felt Kugel, even if there probably wasn’t

And on death:
Everyone shared the same final thought, and this was it: the bewildered, dumfounded statement of his own disappointing cause of death. Shark? Train? Really? I get hit by a train? Malaria? Fuck off. Malaria?