Sunday, 29 December 2013

THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA by Elspeth Huxley

THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA is famous as a memoir of an African childhood. It deserves its fame, I would say, being a simple and heartfelt account of a unique time and place.

The story begins with a five year old girl arriving in Kenya with her parents in 1912. Her father buys some land, on impulse, while drinking one night, and the family bizarrely decides to move out there - to land they've never seen - to start farming coffee. Don't be misled by this into thinking that they are doing this because they have experience in coffee farming; or indeed experience in any farming; these are aristocratic people of very small means but apparently very large balls. One is reminded how insanely brave/stupid early settlers were.

The local Kikuyu certainly lean towards finding them on the stupid end of the spectrum. They can't understand why the white man thinks they will want to work for him, as they have no use for formal money. They are fascinated however by the paraffin lamps, and eventually agree to work in exchange for a lamp each, after they have been convinced that they are not the spirits of dead men, caged up in glass. The farm slowly takes shape, and we are introduced, through the eyes of the little girl, to the small community, both European and Kikuyu.

Here is one of the first meetings between the Europeans and Kikuyu community, with one English gent very embarrassed by the exposed genitals of the Kikuyu men.
"Perhaps we should not have brought the ladies on this expedition," he murmured to Alec; but Tilly overheard.
"Perhaps we should not have brought the gentlemen," she suggested, indicating a number of well-greased, shaven-headed girls who had nothing on but very small triangles of leather and strings of beads . . .

Much of the joy in the book is the evocation of a lost world. Here for example is the child's account of the response of an old Kikuyu man as he agrees to look after her pony when she eventually has to leave Thika: "Good. When we see this white pony, we shall say: here is the toto of bawana bad hat, she will have this pony in her head as a man herds his cattle there, so we will think of you when we see him."

Huxley does a remarkable job of creating a believable child's voice, which is I think quite an achievement, most children in literature being either fakey or annoying. The writing is often very lyrical:
One morning I surprised two dikdik in the glade, standing among grass that countless quivering cobwebs had silvered all over, each one - and each strand of every cobweb - beaded with dew. It was amazing to think of all the untold millions of cobwebs in all the forest glades, and all across the bush and plains of Africa, and of the number of spiders, more numerous even than the stars, patiently weaving their tents of filament to satisfy their appetites, and of all the even greater millions of flies and bees and butterflies that must go to nourish them; and for what end, no one can say.



MASTER GEORGIE by Beryl Bainbridge

The question is, how had I not heard of Beryl Bainbridge before now? I have a sort of suspicion that her dreadful home counties name had put me off, making me think she likely wrote detective fiction of the murder-on-the-village-green description. GOOD GOD I WAS TOTALLY WRONG. This is a ravishing novel, technically perfect, it's only fault being that it is too short.

MASTER GEORGIE tells the story of a surgeon and amateur photographer who travels to the Crimean War. The story is however not told in his voice, but in that of three of his associates: an orphan girl who is in love with him, his academic brother-in-law, and a poor young man who is his assistant. The genius of the book lies very much in how beautifully evoked these three characters' internal lives are, with never a false note. They create the atmosphere of the Crimean war beautifully, and while much research has clearly gone into this book, it is worn lightly. The Crimean war is famous for being the first war to be really photgraphed, which means it is the first war in which civilians at home got a true sense of what war really meant, and much has been written as to its significance. To write an entire novel about a photographer in the Crimean without ever once bring up this dead horse for a beating is a real achievement.

There are many snippets I found charming, but here is one from the voice of the poor young man, who is great pragmatist:
"Should I obtain a post at Scuratri," he (George) said, "it would give me great peace of mind if you would stay here and arrange passage home for Annie and the children." I agreed, of course. How could I refuse? He then began a rambling discourse to do with his past life, regrets, wasted opportunities, lack of application, etc, and how he felt, in some mysterious way, that the war would at last provide him with the prop he needed.

Also quite charmingly, the romantic heroine is the orphan girl, Mrytle, and everyone is surprised to learn that Master George might be interested in her: "he being the shallow sort of fellow susceptible to more obvious charms - a rosy complexion, sparkling eyes, splendid bust, etc. Myrtle was smallish, pale, had a chest as flat as a board . . It's true that when she engaged one in conversation, or was observed playing with the children, or she smiled, it was a different story. Then I do believe she cast a spell." I think I might start a collection of all the times a female novelist tells us her heroine, while not conventionally pretty, is lit up by her intellect, or her heart, which in the end wins everyone over. Total wish fulfillment on the part of novelists, and I think we can trace a straight line from the mother of them all- Jane Eyre - straight through to Bridget Jones.

Though I did love this book, I also feel resentful of it. Within the first couple of pages I was already slowing down my reading, dreading the end; and now I've finished it, I feel mad at the wonderfully talented Beryl Bainbridge for sucking me in and then dumping me out so abruptly.

Friday, 27 December 2013

LOVE, NINA by Nina Stibbe

Nina Stibbe worked as a nanny in the early 80s, and this book is made up of the letters she wrote to her sister during this period. The family she worked for were literary celebrities (Stephen Frears' ex-wife and her two children, with Alan Bennett over for dinner every night) which adds a sort of historical interest, but the primary charm of this book is Nina's lively sense of humour, and the warm sense of community that was evidently a large part of her life at that time.

Here she is on Brighton: "Arriving at railway station is good. It's downhill into town and you feel energetic, striding down to the sea front - as opposed to an uphill work at the start of a place. But then, before you get anywhere charming, you're surrounded by WH Smith and Boots and people wanting a haircut and you might as well be in Loughbough. Beach disappointing and the whole place pleased with itself for no reason." Totally accurate assessment.

Very enjoyably, there is much talk about language in the family she works for:
AB: This is tasty.
MK: Do you have to say tasty?
AB: It is tasty.
MK: I'm not denying it, but there's no need to say tasty.

I like this. While I don't have a big problem with the word tasty, I definitely don't like the word meal. And particularly I can't bear a hearty meal. A tasty meal is also pretty bad, now I come to think of it. I am glad to see others also dislike common words and aren't shy to control their acquaintances' usage of them.

A charming and strangely comforting short read.

THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P by Adelle Wadman

This book is so good it makes me feel bad. I just want to go and sit in a dark room and think about how I can improve my life and complete worthwhile projects.

Pretty much everything is good about THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P. First of all, its written in a believable male voice. Or at least I think it's believable: but then I'm not a male, so I wouldn't know. And there in lies much of the genius of the book. Wadman's story is about the love life of a Brooklyn writer, called Nate, and makes the remarkable effort to jump across the gender divide and understand what men are thinking in their relationships with women.

He meets a smart, fun woman named Hannah, and they start dating. Slowly however their relationship begins to fall apart, a collapse which is beautifully and subtly written. As in real life, it is hard to pin down what is going wrong. One view could be that Nate's a misogynist. He does certainly like to bang on about what 'women' want, and what 'women' think. Example: "He also thought that women as a general category seemed less capable of (or interested in) the disinterested aesthetic appraisal of literature or art: they were more likely to base judgments on a things message, whether or not it was one they approved of, whether it was something that 'needed saying.'"

Thus, he regards writing about relationships as not particularly worthwhile, which is ironic given the novel in which he appears. His female friend Aurit argues:
"Dating is probably the most fraught human interaction there is. You're sizing people up to see if they're worth your time and attention, and they're doing the same to you. It's meritocracy applied to personal life, but there's no accountability. We submit ourselves to these intimate inspections and simultaneously inflict them on others and try to keep our psyches intact - to keep from becoming cold and callous - and we hope that at the end of it we wind up happier than our grandparents, who didn't spend this vast period of their lives, these prime years, so thoroughly alone, coldly and explicitly anatomized again and again. But who cares, right? It's just girl stuff."
Nate responds:
"Classic Aurit. Take whatever she was personally interested in and apply all her ingenuity to turning it into Something Important."

I do tend to think that Nate is a bit of a mysoginist; but let's face it: so are most people, including most women. The book also just suggests that perhaps Nate and Hannah are just not well matched. He wants to have fun, and Hannah wants to have a relationship. As he puts it
"When he was twenty-five, everywhere he turned he saw a woman he already had, or else didn't want a boyfriend. Some were taking breaks from men to give women or celibacy a try. Others were busy applying to grad school, or planning yearlong trips to Indian ashrams, or touring the country with their all-girl rock bands. . . But in his thirties everything was different. The world seem populated to an alarming degree, by women whose careers, whether soaring or sputtering along, no longer pre-occupied them. No matter what they claimed, they seemed, in practice, to care about little except relationships."
In short, he freaking loves it that the high volume ticking of the ovary clocks has put the odds very much in his favour.

And here's an interesting insight: "As they were getting into bed, she told him that he was treated like a big shot because he was a guy and had the arrogant sense of entitlement to ask for and expect to get everything he wanted, to think no honour too big for him. The funny thing was that Nate thought there was a great deal of truth in this. But he thought she could stand to ask for more. His main criticism of her, in terms of wriitng, was that too oftens he wasn't ambitious enough. She should treat each piece as it if mattered, instead of laughing off flaws proactively, defensively, citing a 'rushed job' or an 'editor who'd mess it up anyway' . . ."

So an insightful and clever little book. Well done Ms Wadman.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

THE INTERESTINGS by Meg Wolitzer

THE INTERESTINGS is a novel that follows a group of friends from their first meeting at a summer camp in their teens, through to their fifties. It covers a huge swathe of life, from failed careers, to rape accusations, to holidays in Venice, but for me it was primarily about the challenge of - as you get older - escaping from the conception you had of yourself as a young person. The main character is one Jules Jacobson, who is astonished by, and then enamoured of, the wealthy New York children she meets at summer camp, and this romance changes her life. It's a romance with a group, rather than a single person, which is something not often written about, and makes the book interesting and unusual.

Wolitzer is an insightful writer, and gave me much to think about. Here she is on a young man's relationship to his mother's boyfriend: " . . it was more father-son than Jonah imagined, for he felt greatly ambivalent about Barry, which was the way most sons seemed to feel about their fathers" And here she is on on a woman's affection for her failure of a brother: "It wasn't twinship, and it wasn't romance, but it was more like a passionate loyalty to a dying brand." She is also quite funny; here is a young man being shown his girlfriend's father's amateur drawings: "Ethan murmured something appropriate for each drawing he came to. It was like an extremely stressful game show, called Say the Right Thing, You Idiot."

In the end, Jules manages to fall out of the love with the group; and you feel both happy and sad for her. She anyway thinks she has made the right choice: "But, she knew, you didn't have to marry your soulmate, and you didn't even have to marry an Interesting. You didn't always need to be the dazzler, the firecracker, the one who cracked everyone else up, or made everyone want to sleep with you, or be the one who wrote and starred in the play that got the standing ovation. You could cease to be obsessed with the idea of being interesting."

I can't decide if this is maturing or settling.





Monday, 16 December 2013

ROSEMARY'S BABY by Ira Levin

After the success of THE STEPFORD WIVES, I decided I was in the market for more 1970s thrillz. I chose ROSEMARY'S BABY on the basis that I'd heard of it. It's not as good WIVES but I did manage to polish off the entire thing in a few hours on a Sunday morning before I got out of bed, so it certainly qualifies as easy reading.

Interestingly, Levin chooses again to write as a woman, the Rosemary of the title, who is a young lady newly married to an actor. They move into a new flat which they are very excited about, only learning later of it's dark history of suicides (DUM DE DUM DUM!). Rosemary really wants to have a baby, and Levin tells us all sorts of things he imagines about womens' periods, which is sort of interesting as a window on the male mind. Her husband does not want to have a baby, but after they meet a sweet old couple who live across the hall he suddenly changes his mind. Rosemary becomes pregnant after a series of strange dreams, and her husband's career suddenly starts going extremely well.

Her friend comes to visit her, and noticing the smell in her apartment, the black candles the couple across the hall gave them, and various other bits and pieces . . . REALISES HER BABY HAS BEEN SOLD TO THE DEVIL. Yes, it's pretty awesome. Her husband has let her be raped by the devil so that she can have Satan's child. It all gets dumber from there, but her attempts to escape are entertaining, as is the final reveal of the Satanic child. Think: black bassinette, booties for the claws, All Hail Adrian (?) etc. Excellent Sunday morning reading. Put me in a good mood for the whole day.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

THE STEPFORD WIVES by Ira Levin

I was vaguely aware of the concept of this novel, but not more, so when my colleague recommended it to me I primarily read it because the price was right: 48p on Amazon. Sweet. It turns out to be a fabulous page turner, transforming an ordinary suburban environment into something creepy and awful.

The story begins with a woman, Joanna, moving with her husband and two children to the suburbs. She is initially rather taken aback to find out that the women in the town seem rather dull, completely focused on domestic affairs and the comfort of their husbands. Then she meets two new female friends, who are fun and independent. Here's the first meeting with one of them, Bobby:
"What a pleasure to see a messy kitchen!" Bobby said. "It doesn't quite come up to mine - you don't have the little peanut butter handprints on the cabinets - but it's good, it's very good. Congratulations."
"I can show you some dull dingy bathrooms if you like," Joanna said.

One of her new friends spends a weekend alone with her husband, and after this is suddenly changed: she is discovered cleaning, and asks her friends immediately what brand of oven cleaner they prefer, apparently without irony. Joanna's other new friend, Bobby, starts to panic - it's her view that there is something in the water affecting all the women. Joanna laughs at this idea, but after her Bobby suddenly changes after a weekend away - suddenly appearing genuinely interested in detergent - Joanna becomes afraid too. Her husband meanwhile begins to complain that she could be wearing more lipstick. It's a tribute to Levin that I can't begin to tell you how deeply ominous this feels.

The husband has been spending a lot of time at the local Mens Association, working on the 'Christmas Toys' project, and Johanna eventually begins to suspect that - SPOILER ALERT - all the women have been replaced with better looking, more obedient, robots. I won't tell you how it ends, but it's a thriller.

This is just a great little book. It transforms an ordinary environment into a terrible one, and is remarkably neatly structured and economically written. Best 48p ever spent.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

COCKTAIL HOUR UNDER THE TREE OF FORGETFULNESS by Alexandra Fuller

I read this book months ago, in high summer in a pool in Portugal, so my recollections of it are a little hazy, as indeed are my recollections of much of that vacation, a sort of haze of sunlight and figs and beer that comes in tiny bottles.

Alexandra Fuller is a Zimbabwean, somewhat older than myself, whose first book DON’T LETS GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT was a memoir of her childhood in Zimbabwe. It was an enjoyable read, but very much, for me, a book of an earlier generation, with the dark shadow of the war upon it, and everybody going about being racist all the time. Her next book, SCRIBBLING THE CAT, was in the same vein, but her third THE LEGEND OF COLTON H BRYANT was set in Wyoming, where she now lives, which I thought was rather brave. It’s so hard for the immigrant to write anything other than immigrant fiction.

Her current book is COCKTAIL HOUR UNDER THE TREE OF FORGETFULNESS, and here she returns safely to Africa, telling her mother and father’s story, as they move from Kenya down to the south. It’s a sweet and touching story, though Fuller does not entirely avoid the temptation to exoticise her parents (easy to do when you have African parents).

Frankly, I can’t tell you too much else about it, but overall I have a sort of warm feel about the story, and so could recommend it, though the heat I feel might just be a sort of half memory of the Portuguese sun.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING by Ruth Ozeki

A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING is an interesting novel, but it would have been better if it hadn't been trying quite so hard to be quite so interesting.

It weaves together three or four narrative voices, with the dominant ones being that of a Japanese teenager who is considering suicide and an American author who is depressed over her incomplete memoir. The voice of the Japanese girl is fresh and believable, and the author does a great job of keeping you hooked on her story as she thinks about killing herself. The voice of the author, on the other hand, is deadly dull. Try this:

"Their access was supplied through a 3G cellular network, but the large telecommunications corporation that provided their so-called service was notorious for selling more bandwidth than it could provide"

Wow. I would be bored if I heard this at a dinner party, never mind paid good money to read it in a novel. Worse yet, this character likes to give us detailed descriptions of her dreams. I mean, how does anyone attain adulthood without receiving this memo: TELLING PEOPLE ABOUT YOUR DREAMS IS NEVER, EVER, INTERESTING. NO ONE WANTS TO HEAR. THEY ONLY LISTEN OUT OF POLITENESS. The author even makes one long dream sequence (which rest assured I skipped) into a major plot point in the novel.

The novel hinges on the fact that the diary appears to be changing as the American woman reads it, which leads the author into an unfortunate musing on quantam theory, a field she is clearly unqualified to discuss, which means the novel rather peters out at the end.

A TALE FOR THE TEAM BEING is still worth reading however, for the Japanese girl's story - it's like a rather good novel hidden deep inside a rather bad one.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

THE WAPSHOT SCANDAL by John Cheever

John Cheever is famous as a writer of short stories, and as I am not much of a fan of the short story, I have long avoided him. I am however increasingly desperate for new books to read, and having decided to start fishing around in the smaller fish of the twentieth century, have pulled him out. This is one of his few novels, and I'm glad I tried it.

The book is the sequel to a novel called THE WAPSHOT CHRONICLE, and tells the story of the grown up children of a family leading their adult lives. It's mostly about relationships, and in true mid-twentieth century male writer fashion, all the marriages are prisons. To which I say, as to my friend Updike: JUST GET A DIVORCE ALREADY AND STOP WHINING

That said, it's very well observed. Here's a shopkeeper : "Now and then he patted his paunch - his pride, his friend, his solace, his margin for error"
And here's a meditation on travel: "Travel has lost the attributes of privilege and fashion. We are no longer dealing with midnight sailings on three-stacked liners, twelve-day crossings, Vuitton trunks and the glittering lobbies of Grand Hotels. The travelers who board the jet at Orly carry paper bags and sleeping babies, and might be going home from a hard day's work at the mill. We can have breakfast in Paris and be home, god willing, in time for dinner . . ."

It's also often weirdly poetic: "What does the sea sound like? Lions mostly, manifest destiny, the dealing of some final card hand, the aces as big as headstones . . . . The sea grass dies, flies like a swallow on the wind and that angry looking tourist will make a lamp base out of the piece of driftwood he carries. The line of last night's heavy sea is marked with malachite and amethyst, the beach is scored with hte same lines as the sky; one seemed to stand in some fulcrum of change, here was the barrier, here as the wave fell was the line between one life and another, but would any of this keep him from squealing for mercy when his time came?"

And here's a obituary I would enjoy: "She had not only lived independently, she had seemed at times to have evolved her own culture"

Dave Eggers, of A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS fame adores this book, and comments in the Introduction: ". . . it's hard to believe a man wrote these sentences, and not some kind of freakish winged book-writing angel-beast or something". I'm not sure I'd go that far, but I certainly enjoyed the novel.

Monday, 18 November 2013

STONER by John Williams

This is a heartbreaking little novel. It's a plain and direct little story that attempts to recount one man's ordinary life in the context of some kind of meaningful framework. In other words, this book could never, ever, ever, win the Booker. Unlike the last book I read, MOON TIGER, which curiously had the same basic materials, STONER attempts to honour the human search of meaning, and suggest that not all such searches are doomed to failure, which obviously makes it profoundly unfashionable.

William Stoner, the title character, is born on a poor farm: "It was a lonely household, of which he was an only child, and it was bound together by the necessity of its toil. In the evenings the three of them sat in the small kitchen lighted by a single kerosene lamp, staring into the yellow flame; often during the hour or so between supper and bed, the only sound that could be heard was the weary movement of a body in a straight chair and the soft creak of a timber giving a little beneath the age of the house."

He is sent by his father to the university, to study agriculture, but once there a sophomore survey course in English literature changes his life, and he decides to become a teacher. The book then follows him through his unremarkable career, his mildly unhappy marriage, and then on to retirement and death. When summarised like that, I appreciate it does not seem like much of a read. But somehow it is such a beautiful account of ordinary troubles, and ordinary courage to overcome them, that it oddly touching. It reminds you that your life is a good deal more than an account of its incidents. Here he is, on his deathbed: "A kind of joy came upon him, as if borne in on a summer breeze. He dimly recalled that he had been thinking of failure - as if it mattered. It seemed to him now that such thoughts were mean, unworthy of what his life had been."

It was 2am by this point, and I was gently drizzling on the sofa, with my face lit up by the blue light of my Kindle. It wasn't just that the story was SOsad/happy, but also because it was so beautifully and simply written. It's so rare to read something utterly unpretentious. I rolled my eyes when I read in the introduction the statement: "The clarity of the prose is in itself an unadulterated joy," but by the time I went to bed I was forced to admit it was an unadaultered joy. It kind of makes you sorry you read it, because you just know the next book will be a disappointment.


Here's the author's view on what the book is about, which I don't quite agree with, but which is interesting none the less:
A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important . . His job give him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was . . .It's the love of the thing that's essential. And if you love something, you're going to understand it. . . . I think it all boils down to what I was trying to get at in STONER. You've got to keep the faith. The important thing is to keep the tradition going, because the tradition is civilisation

Friday, 15 November 2013

MOON TIGER by Penelope Lively

Well, here's an eminently forgettable book. It's a Booker winner, and it's entirely in the mould of many Booker winners, ie: it's 'inventive'. It's essentially a straightforward story of one woman's life, but, life not being interesting enough for this kind of literature, the chronology is all mixed up, and a general air of 'poetry' hangs over the proceedings.

The central character has a strong (and for a few months apparently incestuous) relationship with her brother, and upon growing up becomes a journalist. She has a profound love affair with a man who dies in World War II in Egypt, and then goes on to get pregnant by a man she cares less for, but who becomes her long term partner and nemesis.

I'm sort of surprised by the vitriol of the above two paragraphs, as I don't remember hating it so bad when I read it. Some books, such as DEATH OF AN ADVERSARY, I like more in retrospect, than at the time; this book apparently is the reverse. It was not all bad, presenting a kind of interesting picture of a life across decades, and the last paragraph was sort of lovely. Speaking of her hospital room, at the end: "It has the stillness of a place in which there are only inanimate objects: metal, wood, glass, plastic. No life. Something creaks: the involuntary sound of expansion and contraction. Beyond the window a car starts up, an aeroplane passes overhead. The world moves on. And beside the bed the radio gives the time signal and a voice starts to read the six o'clock news."

But overall, I've practically already forgotten I ever read it.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

MAY WE BE FORGIVEN by AM Holmes

This novel tells the story of a man, Harold Silver, whose younger brother is more successful then he: he has an impressive job, a nice wife, two children, etc etc. Then Harold's brother has some kind of mental break, and intentionally causes a car accident in which a family dies. He is hospitalised,and Harold steps in to look after his family. Harold ends up having an affair with the wife, and one night while he is having sex with her the brother comes back home and, finding them together, beats the wife to death with a lamp. Thereafter the brother is jailed, and Harold continues to look after his children.

This early phase of the book is deeply annoying, with Harold a typical late 20th century literary anti-hero, aimless, useless, and totally disassociated from his life or any feelings about it. Try this: "Something is missing. I feel like I've fallen into a space between spaces, like I don't really exist - I'm always out of context. Searching for clarity, I visit my mother" I mean honestly. And no points for guessing that his relationship with his mother is empty and meaningless.

He gets involved with the internet in some unhealthy ways, and we learn that AM Holmes is very likely over 50. Here is her old lady analysis of the internet : "There is a world out there, so new, so random, and disassociated that it puts us all in danger. We talk online, we 'friend' each other when we don't know who we are really talking to - we fuck strangers. We mistake almost anything for a relationship, a community of sorts, and yet, when we are without our familiar, in our communiaties, we are clueless, we short-circuit and immediately dive back into the digitized version . . ." In fact, let's google her age right now.

Yup. She's 51. No surprises there.

However, the story picks up after Harold starts looking after the kids. He develops a sort of strange family made up of various misfits who live in his brother's community, and the story becomes something of a meditation on finding family where ever you are. There's a rather embarrassing trip to South Africa where Harold decides that all the white people are racist, whereas his black waiter is 'a magical experience'(!?!) but this does not detract from the general improvement to the novel which occurs in the last half, making a rather sweet and - thank god - plot driven conclusion to what could have been a dire book.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY by Hilary Mantel


But seriously, you guys, Hilary Mantel blows my mind. I can't believe this is her first novel. I can't believe she wrote it IN HER TWENTIES. First of all, obviously, because it's such a good novel, but second of all, and mostly, because it's so impressively ambitious. It's a densely researched account of the main figures of the French Revolution from childhood through to the their deaths on the scaffold. She is 22 and living in Botswana, and she's like: I know, for my first book, I'll write a Trollope length novel that will required five years of research about a period that is extremely well known by the establishment. Frankly, this woman has BALLS. Presumably she also had an independent source of income. I feel inspired/depressed.

The book follows those titans of A-level history, Robespierre, Danton and Desmoullins from their provincial childhoods onwards. Interestingly, all these mean went to high school together. This makes a sort of intuitive sense to me, because what they did was truly bonkers, and its often been my view that there is nothing for bringing out the bonkers in you like your high school friends. It's hard I think to grasp now how profoundly the French Revolution really was a revolution. They went from a king, to no king; from God, to the 'Supreme Being,' of rationality, from a class system, to butchers and bakers in Versailles. They even declared the equality of women. It's interesting to see the mechanics of how this happened - the sheer physical courage that was required - but it's even more interesting to see the kind of intellectual courage that was needed, to rip history up and start again, relying pretty much entirely on a bunch of kids you knew in high school. Danton is the tough leader, Desmoullins the PR guy, and Robespierre the pure heart of Revolutionary righteousness.

The French Revolution is a classic tale of how those who live by the guillotine also die by it, and the collapse of the Revolution, and of the friendships at its core, is perhaps the most gripping part of this book. As the Revolution wore on, and ordinary peoples' lives (as is traditional with revolutions) did not improve, the Revolution began to devour itself. Revolutionaries accused other revolutionaries of not being sufficiently revolutionary, and with a guillotine just outside the front door, and in constant use, it was all too easy to send them for the chop. A fevered atmosphere, like that of seventeenth century witch trails developed. Robespierre eventually sends Danton and Desmoullins to their deaths; he follows them shortly after. It's sad and satisfying.

As always with Mantel, the greatest joy does not lie so much in the narrative as it does in the narrative voice. Here are some favourites:

On a woman who used to be terribly academic, married an older man, and is now having an affair: "She could only conclude that she had been serious-minded as a girl, and had grown steadily more inclined to frivolity as the years passed."

The same woman, on physical attractiveness: "She knew that for many women beauty was a matter of effort, a great exercise of patience and ingenuity. It required cunning and dedication, a curious honesty and absence of vanity. So, if not precisely a virtue, it might be called a merit"

On the weather: "an ominous December day, when iron-coloured clouds, pot-bellied with snow, grazed among the city's roofs and chimneys."

And, to conclude, some wise words from the boys' headmaster. Perhaps I should tape them to my laptop: " 'Try to learn this truth, Maximilien,' Father Herivaux said: 'most people are lazy, and will take you at your own valuation. Make sure the valuation you put on yourself is high.'"

THE DEATH OF THE ADVERSARY by Hans Keilson


THE DEATH OF THE ADVERSARY is frequently described as a 'lost classic' of twentieth century fiction. Forgotten by the world, it was re-discovered when a well known translator was digging around in a bargain bin in an Austrian bookstore, and came across it, thinking it was something else. Now, in my experience, anything that needs to be 'rediscovered' always sets off alarm bells. Why is it lost? Who lost it? Somehow no ones ever been able to lose HAMLET.

THE DEATH OF THE ADVERSARY is a lightly autobiographical tale about the rise of Hitler. It tells the story of young Jewish man whose life is increasingly circumscribed by the growth of Nazism. Deeply annoyingly, the author never actually mentions Hitler by name, but instead refers to him as the 'adversary' in an awkwardly 'poetic' manner throughout. During and immediately after reading this book, I sort of hated it. I didn't know how the New York Times could call it a 'masterpiece' and Hans Kielson a 'genius.' Weirdly though, as time has gone past, I find sections of the book remain absolutely clear in my memory. I find myself occasionally thinking of scenes, or characters, and wondering what book they're from, and then realising: oh yah, it's that Adversary thing I hated.

There's a scene in which the main character meets some strangers, and one of them tells a long story about how he was sent with a bunch of young Nazis to defile a Jewish cemetery. At the time, I was kind of annoyed by this chapter long digression from a character we'll never meet again. Now though, I find that the whole cemetery episode stays with me, for it's sad depiction of how hard it was for the young Nazis to actually bring themselves to poop on graves, and knock over childrens' tombstones. I also recall the main character's account of his parents' attempts to prepare for the coming of the Nazis, which involved packing backpacks with chocolate bars and hand cream, with no real idea why they might need them, as if they might soon be going camping.

Frankly I'm oddly conflicted. I hated it at the time, but I like it in retrospect. Sort of the reverse of a bad breakup.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

LET'S EXPLORE DIABETES WITH OWLS by David Sedaris

Regular readers of this blog may recall the period in which I was not sleeping, and so I took to my Sedaris. I started with a large print copy of WHEN YOU ARE ENGULFED IN FLAMES, which someone gave me, and then moved through all sorts of other Sedaris, from SANTALAND DIARIES to DRESS YOUR FAMILY IN CORDUROY AND DENIM. I decided recently to try LET'S EXPLORE DIABETES WITH OWLS, his latest, and OH DEAR. On my Kindle, if you go MENU - VIEW NOTES AND MARKS - the damning statement comes up: THERE ARE NO NOTES OR MARKS. David! What's gone wrong! The master of the witty phrase and killing insight! Here's what I think. His other stories were about his drug addicted, waster youth, and his messed up family. They were thus charming and comforting. Now, what does he have to write about? How he's a best selling novelist? How he stays in chic hotels? How he has a stable relationship? I don't think there's any writer that could turn that kind of happy success into interesting material. However, I have hope. If he keeps writing like this he won't be successful for too much longer . .

Friday, 9 August 2013

MR NORRIS CHANGE TRAINS and GOODBYE TO BERLIN by Christoper Isherwood

Christopher Isherwood is an English novelist who lived in Berlin as Hitler was coming to power, and these two novels capture that uncertain time. They tell the story of the various friends of one Christopher Isherwood, though he assures us that just because he has given his own name to the first person narrator “readers are certainly not entitled to assume that its pages are purely autobiographical” . Whatevs, Christopher Isherwood.

The “Christopher Isherwood” of the novels is struggling with his writing, and you can tell this in Christopher Isherwood’s novels. MR NORRIS CHANGES TRAINS is a rather dull story about a friend of the author’s who turns out to be a minor con man, while GOODBYE TO BERLIN is a lovely, acutely observed portrait of a lost world. It’s sort of frightening one person could have written them in a short period of time, showing how unreliable is inspiration, how unsteady talent.

Here is the description of a rich man: “ He was vague, wistful, a bit lost; dimly anxious to have a good time and uncertain how to set about getting it. He seemed never to be quite sure whether he was really enjoying himself, whether what we were doing was really fun. He had constantly to be reassured”

Or, on one of his friends whose boyfriend was leaving: “The afternoon he came to say goodbye there was a positively surgical atmosphere in the flat, as though Sally were undergoing a dangerous operation” This Sally is Sally Bowles by the way, as GOODBYE TO BERLIN is the basis of the musical CABARET.

Or, on a deer: “the roe went bucketing over the earth with wild rigid jerks, like a grand piano bewitched”

Or on an old woman “She sat on the edge of her bed with the photographs of her children and grandchildren on the table beside her, like prizes she had won”
Okay, I’ll stop there, but suffice to say I liked this novel.

Curiously, pre-war Berlin reminded me constantly of today’s Harare. I suppose this is not so surprising, as both places had faced catacylismic inflation, though as yet this has not resulted in the wholesale execution of minorities, at least in the latter. Just as street signs disappeared in Harare, to be used as coffin handles, the leather arm rests disappeared from German trains, as they were sold for leather, and people were to be found dressed in train upholstery. Christopher’s landlady recalls the days she would have “slapped the face” of anyone who suggested she scrub her own floors, which she now does happily, which reminds me of many a Zimbabwean reduced further than they ever thought possible. How awful is this: "The whole district is like that: street leading into street of houses like shabby monumental safes crammed with the tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle class”

And I don’t know if its just because I have taken 8 plane rides in the last fourteen days, but this part also struck a sad chord for me: “Where in another ten years, shall I be, myself? Certainly not here. How many seas and frontiers shall I have to cross to reach that distant day; how far shall I have to travel on foot, on horseback, by car, push-bike, aeroplane, steamer, train, lift, moving staircase and tram? How much money shall I need for that enormous journey? How much food must I gradually, wearily, consume on my way? How many shoes shall I wear out? How many thousands of cigarettes shall I smoke? . . .What an awful tasteless prospect!”


Saturday, 20 July 2013

CONFESSIONS OF SHOPAHOLIC by Sophie Kinsella



As you can see, it's dark days here at WHITE WHALE. I'm trying not to panic, but I'VE LOST MY KINDLE. And I've been travelling a lot, so it could be in any one of three countries. It wouldn't be the end of the world, except I'm stranded in the literary wasteland that is the Abuja Hilton. A sampling of my choices is in the picture here. Inspirational business books, introductory primers on weird subjects, vanity project histories of Nigeria.
I would almost start to consider the inspirational business books, but really: I have total contempt for people who read inspirational business books. It's one of those things when glimpsed on someone's lap on a plane, or on their bookcase, consigns them immediately to always being an acquaintance, never a friend. Thus, this current book. When that's all that's on offer, CONFESSIONS OF A SHOPAHOLIC starts to look pretty good.

And actually, it was okay. It was quite readable and entertaining, though clearly the author has very little respect for the reader's intellect or attention span. It was also quite fun to read a novel set in 2000. People spend a lot of time calling each other on landlines, and very little time stalking each other on Facebook.

It did cost some 2500 Naira, which is about $15, and I whisked through it in two days of running on the treadmill. So now I'm back to square one and I still have to live through another five days. I don't think I've been without access to reading material for that long in my entire adult life. I'm trying not to panic.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

CLOUDSTREET by Tim Winton



This is a book that is largely made up of fleeting poetic impressions, loosely grouped around a storyline. In other words, I wanted to kill someone while reading it: either myself or Tim Winton, I'm not sure which. Possibly both.

Because on the one hand, I feel bad. It is sometimes very elegantly and beautifully written, and I was sort of interested in the characters, and maybe I am just missing something, as other people seem to like it. On the other hand: OH MY GOD. Just say what you want to say. Not everything has to be shadowed by the strange and wonderful other realities. I can think of many bathroom trips I have made, that were singularly unshadowed. Also, it was rather in the modern vein, in that sorrow and futility were clearly very much on the menu, and speech marks were very much not.

I read to the end of the book, but there's the bit where I gave up, about two-thirds of the way through the book, or at Location 2996 as my Kindle helpfully tells me: "She felt pity and misery and hatred and she knew this was how it would always be. . . What are we supposed to do? he said. I dunno, she said.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD by John le Carre


THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD is the victim of its many imitators. It seems today rather cliché: the disillusioned government operative, the brown raincoat, the double (or perhaps it’s a triple) cross, the drinking, the idea that everybody loses: so far, so spy novel. This is a literary world very familiar to me, because my father was a great reader, and a great lover of a certain kind of dog-eared paperback, and I am a veteran of my father’s bookcases. As my parents always let me read just what I pleased, the alcoholic double agent alone in his Berlin apartment was a relatively major feature of my early internal life (no wonder I have problems).

THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD only seems cliché today because it was so massively influential in its time. What it presented was shocking then: international affairs with no goodies and no baddies, and no victory possible. Today, this is the default position of virtually every high schooler; but at that time it was revolutionary, and the book has cast a long shadow over the spy novel ever since.

The story is focused on one Alec Leamas, who is a spy near the end of his career. The book does not quite reveal all to the reader, till right near the end, so I don’t want to spoil it for you; but essentially he accepts a mission which involves convincing the East Germans that he has been fired by MI5, and is now a disillusioned drunk ripe for turning. There a two wrinkles: one, that he actually is a disillusioned drunk ripe for turning, and two, that he falls in love. He travels to East Germany with his new communist handlers, and cross and double cross abound, drawing in his lady love, and ending in a sad non-victory on all sides.

The book is well written and keeps you guessing, and I enjoyed it. Here’s a sample: “The airport reminded Leamas of the war . . Everywhere that air of conspiracy which generates amongst people who have been up since dawn – of superiority almost, derived from the common experience of having seen the night disappear and the morning come.”

Curiously however what I most enjoyed was the Afterword, in which Le Carre talked about the process of writing the book. He was a quite unknown staffer in the secret service at the time: "I had been poor too long, I was drinking a lot, I was beginning to doubt, in the deepest of ways, the wisdom of my choice of job. The familiar process of embracing an institution, then fighting my way clear of it, was taking over my relationship to my marriage and my work"

He was just thirty years old, and interestingly he rapped the book out in just six weeks, the dark world of the novel reflecting his dark internal state. The book was a massive success, and changed his life overnight: "My marriage broke up, I went through most of the withdrawal symptoms that fame instills in writers, even if they pretend it doesn’t. I found a new wise wife and put myself together . . .But of course I will never forget the time when a disgusting gesture of history coincided with some desperate mechanism inside myself, and in six weeks gave me the book that altered my life”

I found it all rather an interesting insight into how one bumbles into life change.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

YOUNG BLOOD by Sifiso Mzobe


I am now way, way, behind on this blog. As a result, I must tell you now I will not be able to do YOUNG BLOOD by Sifiso Mzobe full justice, despite the fact that it is an interesting debut novel with a distinctive voice, as I read it months ago.

As I vaguely recall, YOUNG BLOOD follows the story of a young man in Durban’s townships, who, failing at school, allows himself to be drawn into the world of car theft. A initially innocent young soul, he is, in the fine tradition of such novels, very soon in way over his head, and learning moral lessons left right and centre.

The story is by turns boring (drink-sleep-do small time drugs) and terrifying (stealing cars, bribing police, etc); which is I suspect very much what it is like to be a small time car thief.

Much of the writing is quite charming; here is a sample: “The love affair between Mandrax fiends and housebreaking is age old. There is nothing more unreliable than a Mandrax fiend, except perhaps Durban December weather.”

This last part, about Durban weather, encapsulates much of the local charm of this book, which vividly captures a part of South African life that is not well documented. At the end, the central character is redeemed by returning to school, which twist I did not believe for a second; but this was still a worthwhile little book, about a small section of South African society.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

SWEET TOOTH by Ian McEwan





You will observe that I am really losing the plot. Spy novels?!? When have I ever read spy novels? And wait, I even just read another one that I've haven't blogged about yet (I'll give you a clue, someone comes in from the cold). Anyway! Ian McEwan rather bravely decides to write an entire novel as a woman. Impressively, he more or less succeeds. It's the 1960s, and some young woman is at Cambridge. She has an affair with her elderly professor, and he suggests her for MI5. She is a hesitant and unwilling spy, which is a good thing, because once she passes the rigorous interview process she finds that woman are only allowed to be secretaries anyway. One really forget how much we today owe to our mother's generation. Eventually she is assigned to liaise with a writer, who the service feels is likely to write the right sort of books. The plan is to give him money, without him being aware where it comes from, so as to encourage writing of his kind, which they believe will foster the right kind of thinking - anti-communist, pro-western values, etc etc. Here is where it gets interesting, because unfortunately she falls madly in love with this writer, and so not telling him who is paying the bills becomes more and more complicated. Eventually he finds out, and a weird sort of double bluff begins, which ends the book with an unexpected twist.

The young woman at the centre of the book is chosen for this project with the writer because she is an enthusiastic reader, and this book is very interesting on the subject of reading as a defining activity. It made me realise I have read many books on what it means to be a writer, but very few on what it means to be a reader. Here's the woman on he reading: "I could take a block of text or a whole paragraph in one visual gulp. It was a matter of letter my eyes and thoughts go soft, like wax, to take the impression fresh off the page. To the irritation of those around me, I'd turn a page every few seconds with an impatient snap of the wrist. My needs were simple. I didn't bother much with themes or felicitous phrases and skipped fine descriptions of weather, landscapes and interiors. I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them." This struck me, because it is pretty much exactly how I read. I've never understood people who think about what they read; the idea is to not have your own thoughts, but someone else's.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

THE PRIME MINISTER'S CHILDREN by Anthony Trollope

It was in the very dark and distant old days, before this blog was begun, when the earth was still hot, and etc, that I began on Trollope's series. I think I started out of order with the Barchester novels, and then moved on to the Pallisers; and THE PRIME MINISTER'S CHILDREN is the last. Now all that lies before me is his stand-alone single books, re-reading of the series in retirement, and of course sad and lonely death.

THE PRIME MINISTER'S CHILDREN is unfortunately the worst of the bunch. Or maybe it's fortunate, because otherwise it would just be too sad to be finishing them at last. The story follows the main characters into their second generation, with all the romantic entanglements we remember from generation one. The Prime Minister's children both want to marry people of whom he disapproves. The daughter wants to marry a boy without much income, and the son wants to marry an American. Cue heartbreak and distress. This sounds like the outline of a great and typical Trollope, so I am not quite sure why it is so unsuccessful. Perhaps it is in part because the narrative lacks drive; in part because Trollope struggles to pull together his multi-book themes; and in part because - very, very unusually for this author - a woman who tries to break the mould is bitterly defeated. Essentially the prime minister's son is in love with this lady, Mabel, and she sort of half turns him down, because while she needs the money, she isn't quite in love with him; and Trollope makes it all go horribly wrong for her from then on, at every turn.

Though I didn't quite enjoy the book as a whole, I still enjoyed being embraced by Trollope's warm and confident writer's voice. Here he is, top of chapter:
Perhaps the method of rushing at once "in medias res" is, of all the ways of beginning a story, or a separate branch of a story, the least objectionable. The reader is made to think that the gold lies so near the surface that he will be required to take very little trouble in digging for it. And the writer is enabled,--at any rate for a time, and till his neck has become, as it were, warm to the collar,--to throw off from him the difficulties and dangers, the tedium and prolixity, of description. This rushing "in medias res" has doubtless the charm of ease. "Certainly, when I threw her from the garret window to the stony pavement below, I did not anticipate that she would fall so far without injury to life or limb." When a story has been begun after this fashion, without any prelude, without description of the garret or of the pavement, or of the lady thrown, or of the speaker, a great amount of trouble seems to have been saved. The mind of the reader fills up the blanks,--if erroneously, still satisfactorily. He knows, at least, that the heroine has encountered a terrible danger, and has escaped from it with almost incredible good fortune; that the demon of the piece is a bold demon, not ashamed to speak of his own iniquity, and that the heroine and the demon are so far united that they have been in a garret together. But there is the drawback on the system,--that it is almost impossible to avoid the necessity of doing, sooner or later, that which would naturally be done at first. It answers, perhaps, for half-a-dozen chapters;--and to carry the reader pleasantly for half-a-dozen chapters is a great matter!--but after that a certain nebulous darkness gradually seems to envelope the characters and the incidents. "Is all this going on in the country, or is it in town,--or perhaps in the Colonies? How old was she? Was she tall? Is she fair? Is she heroine-like in her form and gait? And, after all, how high was the garret window?" I have always found that the details would insist on being told at last, and that by rushing "in medias res" I was simply presenting the cart before the horse. But as readers like the cart the best, I will do it once again,--trying it only for a branch of my story,--and will endeavour to let as little as possible of the horse be seen afterwards.
And then there is his wisdom. Here is a letter from poor defeated Mabel: "It is not the presence of the skeleton that crushes us. Not even that will hurt us much if we let him go about the house as he lists. It is the everlasting effort which the horror makes to peep out of his cupboard that robs us of our ease."

Oh Anthony, I will miss you!

Friday, 29 March 2013

THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER by Junot Diaz

Like Edith Wharton, Junot Diaz is clearly working through some powerful personal issues. Almost every single one of these stories is about regret for infidelity, and is full of a kind of steaming pain, while also being strangely hilarious.

Here, for example, is a brilliantly funny line that I've been thinking of often: "Show me a beautiful girl and I'll show you someone who is tired of fucking her." Or he is here on his mother: "My mom wasn't the effusive type anyway, had one of those event-horizon personalities - shit just fell into her and you never really knew how she felt about it."

Regular readers of this blog may recall my great love for Diaz's last book THE BRIEF AND WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO, which gave me an entirely new understanding of the possibilities of writing for us confused people of the diaspora. I did not enjoy THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER as much as OSCAR WAO - perhaps because I am not fond of short stories - but I still enjoyed his immensely contemporary voice. Here he is for example, on his mother's friends, who encouraged her to hate his brother's girlfriend: "They could have moderated things a little, don't you think, but they were, like, Fuck that, what are friendships for if not for instigating?" I just love the punctuation around like, I love the sentiment, I love the don't you think.

That said, I did start to find the obsessive concern with infidelity a bit dull after a while, especially in the last story, which is all about a professor in Boston (very like Diaz) who is busy being miserable about fucking around on his girlfriend. I know it's charitable, but I started to feel like: dude, get a grip; and my love of his literature wobbled a little.


Saturday, 2 March 2013

SWIMMING HOME by Deborah Levy


According to reviews, this novel bridges the gap between poetry and narrative. Clearly, I thought I was going to hate it. The introduction did not help; speaking of Levy, the writer says:
". . she was a writer as much at home within the fields of visual and conceptual art, philosophy and performance as within that of the printed word. She'd read her Lacan and Deleuze, her Bartes . . Like the emotional and cerebral choreographies of Pina Bausch, her fiction seemed less concerned about the stories it narrated than the interzone (to borrow Burrough's term) . . . "

Oh god! "Less concerned about stories," as if that makes you a better writer! GOD. i am glad I did not give up however, because SWIMMING HOME turns out to be rather a lovely novel.

It tells the story of a family who arrive for their vacation in a rented house in France to find another lady there, who says she has confused her dates, and thought she had the house rented. They invite her to stay, and it slowly becomes clear that the lady is in fact there because the father in the family is a famous poet, with whom she is in love. The lady and the poet have a sort of melancholy half-baked affair, and the story ends rather sadly. It's an interesting plot, with really gorgeous writing. Here is the lady and poet on the way to a hotel:
As they strolled down the Promenade des Anglais in the silver light of the late afternoon, it was snowing seagulls on every rooftop in Nice. She had casually slung the short white feathered cape across her shoulders, its satin ribbons tied in a loose knot around her neck.
And here they are in the elevator up to their hotel room:
She stared at the multiple reflections of Joe's sweating arm around her waist, the green silk of her dress trembling as they saild silently in the lift that smelt of leather to the third floor.
The book has some light hearted moments, also, as when the poet becomes annoyed with a friend who is acting horrified about someone else's behaviour. The poet says: "It's rude to be so normal, Mitchell," which I found strangely hilarious.

What most impressed me was the author's ability to weave the various poetic elements in and out of the story, with multiple complex repetitions, in a way that seemed entirely natural and in service to the plot. Really remarkable writing.

PENELOPE by Rebecca Harrington

This is a book about the Harvard experience by someone recently graduated from Harvard. It begins well; here is the first description of the central character: "Penelope Davis O'Shaunessy, an incoming Harvard freshman of average height and lank hair," which I found entertaining.

Thereafter, it goes down hill. That period of early adulthood has been covered, and covered well (BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, OF HUMAN BONDAGE, etc etc and ETC), so if you're going to do it you better have something new to add. Unfortunately PENELOPE does not. It's such a basic story, with such routinely 'comic' moments, that after a while I started to wonder if there was some much larger joke that I was missing.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn

It's a heroic moment for this blog! Somehow, it appears that without planning to, I have just read eight books in a row by women! This has never happened before. Nothing even close - last year hardly a third of the year's books were by women. I've felt guilty about it, but not guilty enough to make a change. I guess it's because in the past I mostly read dead people, and most women currently dead were too busy with the misery of cooking and cleaning and having mountains of babies to have time to write while they were alive. But now that I'm reading living people, women with labour-saving devices and birth control are showing up in my library. Well done feminism.

GONE GIRL is a brilliant page turner. I went to bed at 9.30pm, thinking I'd do a little reading, and when I looked up again it was 1.30am. I never read thrillers - I probably haven't read once since I was completing my father's bookcases as a teenager - and I'm glad I gave this one a chance. The next night I went to bed at 8.30pm, because I knew what kind of book I was up against, and finished it before midnight. My eyes are fiery pits. Totally worth it.

In the best tradition of thrillers, and of real life, a woman disappears. The story is then told from two perspectives: her husband, after her disappearance, and the woman herself, Amy, through her diary before she disappears. The diary suggests that she is a fun, relaxed woman, who was growing increasingly afraid of her husband. SPOILER ALERT Then the husband's story continues in the same time frame, but we are suddenly introduced to Amy in the present - because she isn't dead, but she is framing her husband! Okay, when you write it down it doesnt sound that interesting, and yet somehow it is.

This is partly due to the fact that you genuinely like Diary Amy, and then real Amy explains how carefully she conducted a persona she has total contempt for; the 'cool girl' that is what women think men want. She says:
I used to see men - friends, coworkers, strangers - giddy over these awful pretender women and I'd want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who'd like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. . . And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They're not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they're pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be."

So it's a sort of generally feminist idea that you can agree with, but it's twisted in awful ways against you.

It's also rather well observed. Try: "Sleep is like a cat: it only comes to you if you ignore it." Or "People say children from broken homes have it hard, but the children of charmed marriages have their own particular challenges." Here are two points I'v always agreed with.

And here's a fine description: "The waitress, a plain brunette disguised as a pretty brunette;" and another: "She'd French-braided her limp hair and clipped it to the back of her head in a rather poignant updo, and she wore lipstick." Poignant updo! For some reason that kills me.

Having said how much I loved it, I have to confess that I didn't quite buy the ending. And I notice that in the best tradition of pulp, I am already forgetting it; it's passing through me like meat that is off. And on that disgusting note, I'll go to bed with my new novel. Also by a woman!

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

MIDDLEMARCH by George Eliot


Having just read Jane Austen's PERSUASION, I moved on to another old friend, George Eliot's MIDDLEMARCH. Apparently I am having some kind of literary high school reunion. While PERSUASION gets better as it and I age, I am really sad that the same can't be said for MIDDLEMARCH. It's one of these disturbing cases where either I am changing or the novel is; and I suppose grim old reality demands that it is the former.

Now, my recollection of this book is of a heartbreaking romance between an idealistic young woman and a handsome young artist, who are divided for much of the novel by their high standards and fine ideas. This is certainly one plot line, but it's the stupidest. I guess somewhere since high school I decided that suffering for your ideals is kind of dumb. The far, far, far better plot line is around a second couple who also live in the village of Middlemarch: the doctor Lydate, and the lovely young lady Rosamund.

When Lydgate arrives in Middlemarch, he is determined to become a great medical researcher, and is clear he does not have the money to marry. Then he falls in love with the beautiful, silent Rosamund, and somehow falls into marriage. He promptly runs out of money and begins a slow and awful decline away from the great man he meant to be towards a comfortable provincial GP. As Eliot explains:
We are on a perilous margin when we begin to look passively at our future selves, and se our own figures led with dull consent into insipid misdoing and shabby achievement.
God, that's depressing.

And so is this:
For in the multitude of middle aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told even in their consciousness; for perhaps their ardour in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardour of other youthful loves, till one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home and made the new furniture ghastly.

George Eliot was a woman, and like many female Victorian novelists, she was not fond of the 'sweet-innocent-virgin' model of femininity. Rosamund's beauty and modesty are nothing short of a trap, and Eliot is clearly much more fond of the young woman who is part of the third couple in the book, Mary. Mary is not sweet or innocent, nor very pretty, and she is a little sharp tongued:
At the age of two and twenty Mary had certainly not attained that perfect good sense and good principle which are usually recommended to the less fortunate girl, as if they were to be obtained in quantities ready mixed, with a flavour of resignation as required.

I found this hilarious. And here's an equally entertaining description on her young man, Frank:
He was a vigorous animal with a ready understanding, but no spark had yet kindled in him an intellectual passion; knowledge seemed to him a very superficial affair, easily mastered: judging from the conversation of his elders, he had apparently got already more than was necessary for mature life.


On thing I love about Victorian novelists is that they are never shy to lay it out for you. There's no 'I think,' or 'in some cultures,' in the nineteenth century, they like just to be BOOYAH: Here's the truth! Here's a great one:
Men and women make sad mistakes about their own symptoms, taking their vague uneasy longings, sometimes for genius, sometimes for religion, and oftener still for a mighty love.

Or
Strange, that some of us, with quick alternate vision, see beyond our infatuations, and even while we rave on the heights, behold the wide plain where our persistent self pauses and awaits us.

Or
That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency . . . If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

PERSUASION by Jane Austen


What can one possibly say about this book? It's as close to perfect as you can come without burning your fingers.

This is probably the fifth or sixth time I've read it, and it's still charming, and soothing, and somehow rather encouraging. It tells the story of one Anne Elliot, who in her youth was convinced that she should not marry the man she loved, because he was so very poor. As an older woman (like late 20s, but that was old in the early 1800s) she meets him again, and somehow they get back together.

Morons, usually men, think Austen writes romances. I think she writes books about how to live. It's nice that she gets her man, but what is really moving about this book is the courage and elegance with which she lives out her bad choices before he comes back. And this is where Austen is comforting, and even inspiring, for we may or may not get our man, but we will all most certainly make bad choices and have to live with them.

Commenting on this novel reminds me of my friend, a young playwright, who was sitting next to an elderly man at a play by Arthur Miller. During intermission he was flipping through the program, and seeing a rehearsal photo, realised the elderly man was ACTUALLY ARTHUR MILLER. So when my friend told me this story, I was like: OMG! Did you talk to him? What did you say? And my friend was like: I didn't say anything! What could I say? Nice work on DEATH OF A SALESMAN? I enjoyed THE CRUCIBLE? He's bloody ARTHUR MILLER. And my awkward friend, who spent the entire second act gazing out of the corner of his eye at ARTHUR MILLER, reminds me of me, trying to blog about bloody JANE AUSTEN.



Tuesday, 29 January 2013

HALF A LIFE by VS Naipaul


Further to my post VS NAIPAUL: I HAVE A LOT OF ISSUES, I bring you VS NAIPAUL: I’VE STILL GOT A LOT OF ISSUES, AND THEY’RE THE SAME ISSUES, AND THEY MAINLY ABOUT MY DAD AND ABOUT SEX.

This book tells the story of a young man from India who has a difficult relationship with his father, and who goes to England to study. This emigration was clearly a deeply formative event for Naipaul in his own life, and he writes about the cultural disjunction with sympathy and insight.

In England, receives a letter from a girl from southern Africa in response to some stories he has published which goes as follows:
At school we were told it was important for us to read, but it is not easy for people of my background I suppose yours to find books where we can see ourselves. We read this book and that book and we tell ourselves we like it, but all the books they tells us to read are written for other people and realy we are always in somebody else’s house . . .. .

He decides to marry her and move to Africa with her. He explains that in some way he simply trusts her:
. . .if you are not used to governments or the law or society or even history being on your side, then youhave to believe in your luck or your star or you will die.

After twenty years or so, which are passed over cursorily, he decides he is tired of her and leaves again for Europe.

I found much of this book in fact to be strangely cursory, a sort of half sketching out of half a life. In traditional Naipaul fashion, the energy only really picks up once he starts being creepy about women. Here is as a student visiting a prostitute, one of very few detailed scenes in the book:
He didn’t consider her face. He just followed her. It was awful for him in the over-heated little room with smells of perfurme and urine and perhaps worse. He didn’t look at the woman. They didn’t talk. He concentrated on himself, on undressing, on his powers.

I find it deeply hilarious when he says ‘it was awful for him,’ as if the woman is having a great time. It’s fascinatingly self-absorbed and unself-conscious. You wouldn’t think it could get any worse, but wait till he starts visiting prostitutes in Africa. These encounters are pretty much the only vivid recollections he brings of his twenty years on the continent. He is introduced to this world by an overseer, who assures him that in Africa eleven year olds enjoy being sexual active and that there is no such thing as underage. Here he is:
Take that little girl we just passed. If you stopped to ask her the way she would stick up her little breasts at you and she would know what she was doing.

So part lovely evocation of fractured modern identity; part Prostitutes I Have Known, it’s VS at close to his worst.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

NW by Zadie Smith


This is a hymn not so much to London as to one corner of London. In this way, it is a book deeply of that city, because no one actually lives in London; one lives in Clapham, or Peckham, or Dulwich. The horrible oppression of the tube keeps London separate and small.

NW tells the story of two women who grew up on a council estate together, and follows them through a few months in their mid thirties. It’s centrally concerned therefore with the issues of one's thirties, and in particular the question of children. One of the women has already had children, and the other has told everyone she is ‘trying’ – in fact, she is secretly on birth control. Here is her perception of a group of mothers she is at a party with:
. . . women for whom trying is half the fun and ‘you’re next’ does not sound like the cry of a guard in a dark place

She herself is not sure why she is unwilling to procreate
Be objective! What is the fear? It is something to do with death and time and age. Simply: I am eighteen in my mind I am eighteen in my mind I am eighteen and if I do nothing if I stand still nothing will change I will be eighteen always. For always. Time will stop. I’ll never die. Very banal, this fear. Everybody has it these days.

I found this to be sort of profound. Not so much with regard to having children or not having children but just in terms of thinking about one’s life overall.

The novel is engaging and well-observed, but it does have some unfortunate ‘modern novel’ tendencies. I’m sorry to have to tell you that we do :
-randomly jump around from character to character
-have a character become deeply anxious about a minor event in a lame thematic way
-becomes horribly poetic for no reason:
Apple tree, apple tree.

Thing that has apples on it. Apple blossom.

So symbolic. Network of branches, roots.
-totally fail to resolve . This is partly a function of the fact that we jump around so much, but it also on a larger level a failure to handle the child theme. At the end, at a climactic moment, a woman embraces her child, and there is some nonsense about how holding her child makes it all worthwhile, it’s beyond words, etc. I mean: seriously? After all that intelligent discussion of the problem, that’s what you’ve got?

Having said that, it gave me much to think about. How’s this, about lending someone thirty pounds to visit their sick mother:
But already the grandeur of experience threatens to flatten into the conventional, into anecdote: only thirty pounds, only an ill mother, neither a murder nor a rape. Nothing survives its telling

Now I don’t know what she’s on about here. For me the anecdote is often better, richer, and truer than the actual lived experience, which is just a pale shadow of my story about it.

THE PRIVATE MEMOIRS AND CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER by James Hogg

The first appeal of this book is that the author was an eighteenth century shepherd who taught himself to read. It’s not so often that the ...