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.

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 ...