Wednesday, 31 December 2014

THE BLUE FLOWER by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald gives us all hope that we haven't left it too late. She only published her first book at the age of 58, but went on to win the Booker and be acclaimed one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. THE BLUE FLOWER was her last novel and is considered one of her most successful. It is a re-telling of the brief life of the philosopher Novalis, who lived in Germany in the late eighteenth century.

It's a brief book, just 223 pages (or 100%, as the Kindle helpfully tells me), but in that span Fitzgerald creates a really rich and full world of the past. Here, for example, is her description of those who come for charity of Christmas:
In Weissenfels there were only the town poor and the town mad, and later the girls with unwanted pregnancies, who could not afford the services of the Angel-maker, the back-street abortionist.
Or here's the Christmas feast:
The servants had already brought inteh soups, one made of beer, sugar and eggs, one of rose-hips and onions, one of bread and cabbage-water, one of cows' udders flavoured with nutmeg. There was dough mixed with beech-nut oil, pickled herrings and goose with treacle sauce, hard-boiled eggs, numerous dumplings.
I'm torn between the cabbage water and the udders. Or here's Novalis' mother, who is put through having a child a year, as did many unfortunate ladies of the period:
An extraordinary notion came to the Freifrau Auguste, that she might take advantage of this moment, which in its half darkness and fragrance seemed to her almost sacred, to talk to her eldest son about herself. All that she had to say could be put quite shortly: she was forty-five, and she did not see how she was going to get through the rest of her life

As Novalis only made it to 29, dying of TB along with eleven of his mother's twelve children (she survived them all), the book focuses mostly on his one grand romance. At nineteen, he creepily fell in love with a twelve year old. He needed to wait till she was sixteen before he could marry her, but unfortunately TB took her at fifteen. Thank you so much Albert Schatz!

THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS by Michel Faber

This book grew on me after I had finished it. It tells the story of a missionary who is sent to preach to the inhabitants of a newly discovered planet. It's a brilliant premise - aliens/god/hyperjumps, etc - but at first the book seemed to be involved in some kind of competition for most interest setup possible leading to most boring plot possible. The planet is featureless, the aliens are humanoid, his mission is successful: WHERE IS ALL THIS GOING? The real drama of the book is it emerges in the letters the missionary writes home to his wife.

The wife writes to tell him of the troubles on earth. It's a scary dystopia, revealed in little snippets. What's particularly clever is that nothing is spelled out - you put together the fact that climate change is really kicking in, that the poor have finally got catastrophically poorer, and that governments are at last entirely abdicating responsibility. The missionary finds it harder and harder to connect with his wife, or to feel like he's part of the earth.

In the end, THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS is more about our own planet, than any other; and it's a clever and sad meditation on what it means to let go of what you used to care about.

EUPHORIA by Lily King

At the end of every year I scrape the 'Best Books of the Year' lists in every newspaper in my never-ending quest for something to read. EUPHORIA appeared on a number of these lists, and I can entirely understand why. Take the premise: love triangle among early anthropologists in Papua New Guinea. Already love it. After a number of books set in British suburbia, I was so ready. The quote that opened the book made me even more so:
Experience, contrary to common belief, is mostly imagination. (Ruth Benedict)
; and so did the book's opening:
As they were leaving the Mumbanyo, someone threw something at them. It bobbed a few yards from the stern of the canoe. A pale brown thing. 'Another dead baby,' Fen said. He had broken her glasses by then, so she didn't know if he was joking.

It only got better from the dead baby. The central character, Nell Stone, who is based on the anthropologist Margaret Mead, is in Papua with her new husband. Their relationship is in trouble, and she slowly falls in love with another anthropologist nearby, a sad and sheltered British man, whose mother "had become a great psychological burden . . , both needy and despotic, a tyrant who seemed not to know what she wanted for or from her last remaining subject." I won't give away what happens, but I do very much encourage you to read it t find out It's entirely worth it - I whipped through the whole thing in a single day.

SMALL WORLD by David Lodge

SMALL WORLD contains some of the same characters as the first book of the trilogy, but is to my mind a much less successful novel. It follows a bunch of academics around a series of conferences across the world. It was clearly written when international travel was still new and exotic, which makes it hard to relate to; but so does the sheer number of characters, and the many odd narrative arcs they are engaged on.

It's still enjoyably comic, which kept me going to the end. Here's his opening:
The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage of medieval Christendom in that it allows the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self improvement. To be sure, there are certain penitential exercises to be performed - the presentation of a paper, perhaps, and certainly listening to the papers of others. But with this excuse you journey to new and interesting places, meet new and interesting people, and form new and interesting relationships with them; exchange gossip and confidences (for your well-worn stories are fresh to them, and vice versa); eat, drink and make merry in their company every evening; and yet, at the end of it all, return home with an enhanced reputation for seriousness of mind.
Knowing quite a large number of academics, I have to say this is an entirely accurate analysis of conference attendance.

I often taken worthwhile life lessons from books, and here's a phrase from this one that I will remember, though it comes originally from William Hazlitt: "The art of pleasing consists in being pleased". This I find to be very true. There's nothing that makes you more attractive to other people than appearing to be happy yourself. It's perhaps not a recipe for total authenticity in human relationships, but there you go; nothing's perfect, and at least you'll be popular.

CHANGING PLACES by David Lodge

This is the first book in the Campus trilogy. In it, a university professor from Rummidge (a loosely disguised Birmingham) gets to swap places with one from California. The British professor is rather unsuccessful, the American one quite successful; and yet the swap works so well for both that they consider swapping not just lives but wives as well. The novel is enjoyably comic. Here we are on a Sunday walk: " . . .to try and find some new, pointless destination for a drive, or to trudge out to one of the local parks, where other little knots of people wander listlessly, like lost souls in hell, blown by the gritty wind amid whirlpools of litter and dead leaves, past creaking swings and deserted football pitches, stagnant ponds and artificial lakes where rowing boats are chained up, by Sabbatarian decree, as if to emphasize the impossibility of escape. La nausee, Rummidge-style."

I can't tell you if the couples do complete the swap, because the novel ends quite randomly mid-plot point. And Refer here's how I feel about that sort of thing . . .

JANE AND PRUDENCE by Barbara Pym

So much did I enjoy EXCELLENT WOMEN that I dove right in to another Pym. While the last one was recommended by Philip Larkin, this one was recommended by Jilly Cooper. A more varied pair of admirers is hard to imagine. Though JANE AND PRUDENCE is a different story with different characters, it feels like a continuation of EXCELLENT WOMEN. In this case, the excellent woman is Jane, who is married to a vicar, and doing rather a poor job of being a vicar's wife. Her best friend is Prudence, who is - horrors, horrors - unmarried. The story follows the attempts of Jane to set up Prudence with a local bachelor.

The novel is charming and comic. Here is Jane to Prudence:
'You've got a new dressing-gown,' she said, trying to keep out of her tone the accusing note that women are apt to use to each other, as if one had no business to spend one's own money on nice clothes.
As with her previous novel, love does not conquer all. The bachelor is gobbled up by another, more aggressive, spinster, and Prudence ends up in a sort of lukewarm alternative relationship.

I didn't quite enjoy this novel as much as the previous one, perhaps because I am now a bit more familiar with Pym's tricks, but it was still enormously enjoyable. It felt a bit more like absorption than reading.

THE ROTTERS' CLUB by Jonathan Coe

So desperate am I for interesting things to read that I am reduced to reading second novels by authors whose first I did not enjoy. I didn't much like HOUSE OF SLEEP, but thought I might as well try THE ROTTERS' CLUB anyway, as it Coe's most famous novel, and, I figured, might represent one of those very common cases where an author only has one good book in them. This is after all one more good book than most people ever manage.

THE ROTTERS' CLUB is indeed a step up on HOUSE OF SLEEP. Again it follows a group of friends, but this time it is focused on high school - Birmingham in the 1970s, to be exact, but as always with novels of adolescence, it could be almost anywhere, at any time. Coe does a great job of creating a huge set of characters, each with an interesting arc, which is not an easy feat. The central character is Benjamin Trotter, who is wildly in love with a girl who is obviously terribly bad news. He gets her at last, prompting a chapter which is a single sentence of joy, apparently the longest in English literature, of 13,995 words.

The ending is a bit abrupt and dubious, with the narrator commenting: "But stories never end, do they? Not really. All you can do is choose a moment to end on." Many novels close with this kind of caveat, as if it is okay that the novel does not have a neat ending because, after all, life has no neat endings. This I fundamentally disagree with. Novels should be an improvement on life; and one of the key areas in which life needs improvement is in its chaotic, meaningless conclusion.



THE HOUSE OF SLEEP by Jonathan Coe

This book follows a group of friends from university through to adult life. The author tries to make sleep a theme, with one character a narcoleptic, one an insomniac, etc etc. The thrilling conclusion takes place at a sleep clinic. I admired the attempt at thematic coherence, but overall found it a bit dull.

TEN YEARS OF THE CAINE PRIZE FOR AFRICAN WRITING

This anthology captures the huge breadth of human experience across our continent. For me, there were three standout stories:

POISON by Henrietta Rose-Innes (South Africa, 2008), a fantastic little story about a women stranded at a gas station while some large scale industrial disaster is happening
DISCOVERING HOME by Binyavanga Wainaina (Kenya, 2002), a description of a young man coming home from university to Kenya
THE MUSEUM by Leila Aboulela (Sudan, 2000), a sweet and sad story about a Sudanese girl at a UK university who can't quite get up the courage to begin a romance with a local boy

I had often thought of the Caine Prize as rewarding a certain dark view of the African experience, but reading this anthology corrected that view: it's a broad swathe of all kinds of Africaness. There's not much out there rewarding quality African artists, so thank you Caine sponsors!

EXCELLENT WOMEN by Barbara Pym

I love the 'Staff Recommendations' section of a bookstore. There's something very charming and local about it, and one often finds quality there. If you've chosen to work at a bookstore rather than say a frozen yoghurt store it's probably because you actually like books, and I find the recommendations are often unexpected and educational. It occurs to me as I type this that this may be because rather than just 'liking' books, given this economy, people working retail jobs in bookstores all have Masters degree in Lit. We're all going to hell in a handbasket. Anyway, back to Barbara Pym. Philip Larkin once said "I'd sooner read a new Barbara Pym than a new Jane Austen." I can't quite agree with him there, but Pym is a fine writer, and I enjoyed EXCELLENT WOMEN.

Mildred Lathbury is single and over thirty, which apparently means she is a confirmed spinster, and is expected to devote her life to helping others. She is also a clergyman's daughter, which apparently makes it all much worse.
Platitudes flowed easily from me, perhaps because, with my parochial experience, I know myself to be capable of dealing with most of the stock situations or even the great moments of life - birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sale, the garden fete spoiled by bad weather . . . 'Mildred is such a help to her father' people used to say after my mother died
A glamorous couple moves into her apartment building, and she is slowly drawn into their lives. The marriage is falling apart, and the husband, good-looking and fun, starts to spend a good amount of time with Mildred.

You might feel like you can probably guess where the novel is going, but in fact you can't. Mildred is always cautious about what all this means, and indeed she is quite right to be. He returns to his wife, Mildred turning out to have been no more to him than a comfortable sofa and a cup of tea; and curiously, Mildred is not very bothered: she enjoys her freedom, and was getting tired of having to make a man dinner on demand. It's a strange little book, mostly comic, but with a little touch of sadness; though one can't quite tell if there's any reason to be sad. It's odd Larkin compared her to Austen, because it's rather anti-Austen, in it's own way, with Mildred ending up alone and happy. Or sort of happy.

As she herself says, early on, having described her appearance as mousey and unremarkable:
Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her


Tuesday, 30 December 2014

HERZOG by Saul Bellow

Apparently I am in the mood for novels about mid-century men losing their wives. Herzog has recently been dumped by his wife, and is slowly losing his mind. He endlessly writes letters to different people, with the novel moving around across his entire lifetime. Usually I find this kind of thing deeply annoying in novels, but Saul Bellow is a remarkable writer and manages to hold it together. Here for example is Herzog's lawyer:
Simkin, sitting in his office, occupied a grand Sykes chair, beneath enormous rows of law books. A man is born to be orphaned, and to leave orphans after him, but a chair like that chair, if he can afford it, is a great comfort.
Hilarious.

Less hilarious is the reminder of world population in the 50s:
I know its no cinch to manage the affairs of this planet with its population exceeding 2 billion. The number itself is something of a miracle and throws our practical ideas into obsolescence.
Apparently in forty years since we've managed to triple world population. That is something of a miracle.

It was also interesting to see in this novel, as in THE SPORTSWRITER which I read recently, that in the past, the wife got to keep the children, no matter what. It's pretty disgusting and sexist. So is Herzog's view on a twelve year girl he sees riding a horse:
In jodphurs, boots and bowler she had the hauteur of a female child who knows it won't be long before she is nubile and has the power to hurt.
I have some experience in the twelve year old girl area, having been one myself, and I can assure you that your nubility (?) never crosses your mind.

Herzog eventually attempts to murder his wife. I can't tell you if he succeeded, as fifty pages from the end, my shampoo burst on the book. Sorry Saul Bellow.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM EATER by Thomas De Quincey

This is among the first ever accounts of drug addiction, and is as boring and as glamorous as every other account of drug addiction.

Every druggie's story includes an awful lot of banging on about taking drugs, I guess because the authors are drug addicts. I was amazed by the similarity between this book, written 1821, and BAD NEWS by Edward St Aubyn, written 1997, which I read earlier this year. Apparently the druggie experience has changed little in the last century and a half. It's truly incredible how interesting De Quincey thinks the number of drops he took on each day is. Unusually, he isn't shy to elaborate on why he took so many drugs - that being, he really liked taking drugs.
I speak from the ground of a large and profound personal experience: whereas most of the unscientific authors who have at all treated of opium, and even of those who have written expressly on the materia medica, make it evident, from the horror they express of it, that their experimental knowledge of its action is none at all.
Indeed, his entire first half of the novel is called THE PLEASURES OF OPIUM, while the second half is THE PAINS OF OPIUM

I found this book a trifle boring, but also rather charmingly well written. Try this, on walking around London:
Some of these rambles led me great distances, for an opium eater is too happy to observe the motion of time; and sometimes in my attempts to steer homewards, upon nautical priniples, by fixing my eye on the pole-star, and seeking ambitiously for a north-west passage, instead of circumnavigating all the capes and headlands I had doubled in my outward voyage, I cam suddenly upon such knotty problems of alleys, such enigmatical entries, and sphynx's riddles of streets without thoroughfares, as must, I concieve, baffle the audacity of porters and confound the intellects of hackney-coachmen.

It makes you wish he hadn't wasted his time being an opium fiend, and instead actually worked on being a writer.

Monday, 22 December 2014

PASSING by Nella Larsen

This novel is an interesting window into New York in the 1920s. It tells the story of two mixed race girls, Clare and Irene, who were friends in childhood. As adults, Clare now 'passes' as white. She is married to a white man, and is lonely, so takes the dangerous step of mixing once again with the non-white community. Irene is married to a black man who is a doctor. Their marriage is in trouble, and she begins to suspect that Clare is having an affair with him. She 'outs' her old friend to her white husband, and there is a strange interaction at a party, where Clare dies by falling from a window, and it is unclear if her husband kills her, Irene kills her, or she kills herself. It's an interesting little book, but I'm sorry to report that I read it so long ago I can't remember much else about it . . .

TRAVELS IN WEST AFRICA by Mary Kingsley

The sub-title of this book is "The Classic Account of One Woman's Epic and Eccentric Journey in the 1890s." This is understatement. This one woman is BONKERS.

Mary Kingsley was one of these unfortunate English women who are forced to say home to look after their elderly parents till late in life. When they died within 6 weeks of each other, in 1892, this lady, who had never left her small provincial town suddenly decided that obviously her next steps were to travel to West Africa.

She had no experience, no supplies, and very little money, but off she went, allegedly collecting fish for the British Museum but mostly just having a fabulous time, slogging her way through jungles full of malaria, wild animals, and actual cannibals. One night, when sleeping in a hut, she decided to open a bag hanging from the rafters.
I then shook its contents out in my hat, for fear of losing anything of value. They were a human hand, three big toes, four eyes, two ears, and other portions of the human frame. The hand was fresh, the others only so so, and shrivelled
These Victorians are incredible. I can't even handle dirty public toilets! How will I ever be epic?

The book is basically a diary, and is essentially written in the comic mode, and is full of the joys of travel. Here she is after crossing a swamp:
One and all, we got horribly infested with leeches, having a frill of them round our necks like astrakhan collars, and our hands covered with them, when we came out. It was for the best that we had some trade salt with us. It was most comic to see us salting each other; but in spite of salt's efficacious action I was quite faint from lost of blood, and we all presented a ghastly sight as we made our way on into N'dorko.

You could almost forgot how awful it must have been, because she writes so joyfully, but then she will casually mention how her face is bleeding from sun tan when she smiles. As she says:
There is nothing like entering into the spirit of a thing like this if you mean to enjoy it, and after all that's the wisest thing to do out here, for there's nothing between enjoying it and dying of it. The sun is broiling hot; everything one has got to sit on or catch hold of is as hot as a burning brick, and there is no cabin, nor even locker, on our craft; so I prop myself up against my collecting box and lazily take stock of the things around me, and write.

As the book goes on the determined cheeriness almost starts to seem insane, and indeed at one point, when considering whether or not to climb a mountain, she sends her men down, but carries on her self, saying "if she dies it will not matter a ha'penny worth to anyone". You begin to wonder how much of the trip is for fun, and how much for suicide. And yet there is so much charm in her small personal account of her crazy adventure, I can only hope she was as happy as she tells us:
I went to my comfortable rooms, but could not turn in, so fascinating was the warmth and beauty down here; and as I sat on the verandah overlooking Victoria and the sea, in the dim soft light of the stars, with the fire flies around me, and the lights of Victoria away below, and heard the soft rush of the Lukola River, and the sound of the sea-surf on the rocks, and the tom-tomming and singing of the natives, all matching and mingling together, 'Why did I come to Africa?" thought I. Why! who would not come to its twin brother hell itself for all the beauty and the charm of it!

Typhoid got her in 1900.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

AS I LAY DYING by William Faulkner

It's a strange oversight that I've never read this classic of twentieth century American fiction. Having read it, I now wish it was an oversight that had continued. It tells the story of the doomed attempt of one family to bury their dead mother in her family's homeland. This sample tells you everything you need to know:
In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when youar eemptied for sleep, you are not. And when are filled with sleep, you never were. I don't know what I am. I don't know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and what he is not.

Doesn't it just make you want to tear Faulkner limb from limb and drink his blood? Likewise the literary establishment? Or how's this, on a young girl:
Squatting, Dewey Dell's wet dress shapes for the dead eyes of the three blind men those mammalian ludicrosities which are the horizons and the valleys of the earth.
WTF, FAULKNER, WTF.

The other thing I particularly hated was the fact that everyone and everything in this story was miserable and/or mean. When people write comedy, in which no one is miserable or mean, we all know that this is fantasy; for some reason, in the opposite case, it's often considered gritty realism. I totally disagree. I am quite sure that there are funny bits in everything, even a hotel room suicide, and any novel that doesn't acknowledge that fact is poorer for it.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

A DEATH IN THE FAMILY by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Regular readers of this blog will know how I love MY STRUGGLE, a 6 volume, 4000 page account of the life of one ordinary Norwegian man.

A DEATH IN THE FAMILY is Book 1 of the series. I had been avoiding it now for about a year, reading Books 2 and 3 first, because I thought that its central plot, of the death of Karl Ove's father, might be a little too close to home for me. You can certainly tell its the beginning, because it kicks off in fine Karl Ove form, with that typical opening for any autobiography: a reflection on death
"For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops. Sooner or later, one day, this pounding action will cease of its own accord, and the blood will begin to run towards the body's lowest point, where it will collect in a small pool, visible from the outside as a dark, soft patch on ever whiter skin, as the temperature sinks, the limbs stiffen and the intestines drain."

Oh Karl Ove! You're such a kidder. Then he goes on to the storage of dead bodies:
"A town that does not keep its dead out of sight, that leaves people where they died, on highways and byways, in parks and car parks, is not a town but a hell. The fact that this hell reflects our life experience in a more realistic and essentially truer way is of no consequence. We know this is how it is, but we do not want to face it. Hence the collective act of repression symbolised by the concealment of our dead. . . .no, the way we remove bodies has never been a subject of debate, it has always been just something we have done, out of a necessity for which no one can state a reason but everyone feels: if your father dies on the lawn one windswept Sunday in autumn, you carry him indoors if you can, but if you can't you at least cover him with a blanket.
"

In this novel, Karl Ove's father, a reclusive alcoholic has just died, and himself and his brother Yngve must go to clean up the filthy home he was living in with his senile and also alcoholic mother - Karl Ove's grandmother. We hear all the mundane details: going to the grocery store to buy bleach, stopping for cigarette breaks, etc; but also a horrifyingly honest assessment of Karl Ove's family relationships:
When we were growing up, I chatted all the time with Yngve and we never had any secrets, but at some juncture, perhaps as early as when I was a gymnas, this changed: from then on I was immensely conscious of who he was and who I was when we were talking, all spontaneity vanished, every statement I made was either planned in advance or analysed retrospectively, mostly both, apart from when I was drinking, then I regained the old freedom. With the exception of Tonje and my mother, that was how I behaved with everyone: I couldn't sit and chat to people any more, my awareness of the situation was too actute, and that put me outside it. Whether it was the same for Yngve I didn't know, but I didn't think so, it didn't seem so when I saw him with others. Whether he knew that was how I felt, I don't know, but something told me he did. Often it felt to me as I were false, or deceitful, since I never played with an open deck, I was always calculating and evaluating. This didn't bother me any more, it had become my life, but right now, at the outset of a long car journey, now that dad was dead and so on, I experienced a yearning to escape from myself or at least the part that guarded me so assiduously.

This impresses me as a really good account of how some people I know manage their lives; but it also amazes me, when I think that Karl Ove's brother is very much alive and well and reading Karl Ove's books. Can you imagine writing and publishing this sort of thing about your most intimate relationships? Karl Ove always makes me feel better about everything. It's so very rare to hear anything even close to the truth about how people really are, inside. One's more likely to get this kind of honesty in literature, than in life, but in either case its a special thing, and immensely comforting; it makes you feel less alone in this world. He's even honest about luggage:
Even though the case was heavy I carried it by the handle as I walked into the departure hall. I detested the tiny wheels, first of all because they were feminine, thus not worthy of a man, a man should carry, not roll, secondly because they suggested easy options, short cuts, savings, rationality, when I despised and opposed wherever I could, even where it was of the most trivial significance.

And about his childhood relationship to plumbing:
He also knew I was frightened of the sound the pipes made when you turned on the hot water, a shrill screech that quickly changed to knocking, impossible for me to cope with, I had to take to my heels, so we had a deal whereby he wouldn't pull the plug after washing in the morning but leave the water in the sink for me. Accordingly, every morning for perhaps six months I washed my face and hands in Yngve's dirty water.

All six books have already been out in Norwegian for some time, but the last three are yet to be released in English. HURRY UP TRANSLATOR!!!

MRS HEMINGWAY by Naomi Wood

It's never a good sign when I look back at a book in order to blog it and see I have not highlighted any passages as being of special interest. Indeed, I did not find this book to be of any special interest.

It's a novelisation of Ernest Hemingway's four marriages. His first is to a nice young woman he meets in Chicago; the second to a much wealthier woman who can fund his career; the third to a hotshot journalist, who proves too successful for his taste; and the fourth to an unfortunate lady who gets the booby prize: a fat, alcoholic old man whose writing days are behind him.

Sounds like a good basis for a book, right? And yet somehow it was dull and I've already forgotten that I read it.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

HER PRIVATES WE by Frederick Manning

This is a novel of the First World War written by a veteran of it. I hate to say it, as it seems disrespectful, but it is deeply dull. I guess it shows that simply having lived through something does not give you the ability to explain it.

HER PRIVATES WE tells the story of a man named Bourne who is in the front lines. Because this is a British novel, the main narrative tension (other than that of being randomly killed) is around . . . wait for it . . . class. Apparently he is of a slightly higher class than the other privates, and thus should be in a higher military rank. I think you must have to be British to find this compelling.

The book is also extraordinarily dated. Here's a sample:
"In the shuddering revulsion from death one turns instinctively to love as an act which seems to affirm the completeness of being. In the trenches, the sense of this privation vanished; but it pressed on men whenever they moved back again to the borders of civilised life, which is after all only the organisation of man's appetites, for food or for women, the two fundamental necessities of nature"

Ladies, that's giving it to us more frankly than we usually hear it.

The book ends abruptly, mid-narrative arc, with Bourne's death. It is quite random, with no literary foreshadowing, no build-up, no resolution and no meaning, and he is quickly forgotten by his lower class colleagues. In some ways this was the most interesting part of the book, where the author abandoned the conventions of literature for a taste of real life / real death.

Monday, 27 October 2014

THE SPORTSWRITER by Richard Ford

This book tells the story of one weekend in the life of a divorced man. It won the Pulitzer, and is about more than just a weekend; it's about how you accept the scope - be it limited or large - of your life.

The man's divorce still smarts, and much of the book is about absorbing that loss. Here he is, rather beautifully, on his marriage: "We paid bills, shopped, went to movies, bought cars and cameras and insurance, cooked out, went to cocktail parties, visited schools, and romanced each other in the sweet, cagey way of adults I looked out my window, stood in my yard sunsets with a sense of solace and achievement, cleaned my rain gutters, eyed my shingles, put up storms, fertilized regularly, computed my equity, spoke to my neighbours in an interested voice - the normal applauseless life of us all."

I just love 'in an interested voice' - sometimes I think that's my whole life. He is full of dreadful, despairing wisdom, like:
"For now let me say only this: if sportswriting teaches you anything, and there is much truth to it as well as plenty of lies, it is that for your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret. Though you must also manage to avoid it or you life will be ruined."
and
"Sometimes we do not really become adults until we suffer a good whacking loss, and our lives in a sense catch up with us and wash over us like a wave and everything goes."

So, full mid-life crisis mode. Curiously, he's only 37. This book was written in the 1980s, and I guess people married and had children sooner then, so also had the mid-life crises early. After a while, I started to find it annoying. I wanted to say: protagonist! you are living through the last golden days of being a middle class American man. Enjoy it! Feminism and China are coming to end it.

But who can fail to enjoy this description of air travel, for which I can forgive him everything: "It must be said, of course, that the interiors of all up-to-date conveyances of travel put one in mind of the midwest. The snug-fitted overhead bins, the comfy pastel recliners, disappearing tray-tables and smorgasboard air of anything-you-want-within-sensible-limits. All products of midwestern ingenuity, as surely as a waltz is Viennese."

THE GRASS IS SINGING by Doris Lessing

THE GRASS IS SINGING is Doris Lessing's first novel, and in it she comes out swinging. The book opens with a snippet about the murder of a white woman by her 'houseboy,' and Lessing's first line is: "People all over the country must have glanced at the paragraph with its sensational heading and felt a little spurt of anger mingled with what was almost satisfaction, as if some belief had been confirmed, as if something had happened which could only have been expected. When natives steal, murder or rape, that is the feeling white people have."

Ouch. Thanks Doris. I guess if Zimbabwe is only to have one Nobel laureate in literature, I am glad it is her. It is a fiery book and I admire her courage in having written it in the Rhodesia in the 40s. It has the distinct smell of burning bridges to it, having been written just before she left the country forever. She was not yet 30, self-educated, and had just walked out on a marriage and two children.

The story focuses on one Mary Turner, who marries because she feels she must, and leaves her happy life in Salisbury for a remote farm. Her husband is rather a failure as a farmer, and she becomes increasingly eccentric/insane over time. She becomes a little obsessed with her domestic worker,and when she dismisses him at last he returns to kill her. If this seems like an odd summary, this is because this is an odd book. It's stressful to read, pulsing with complicated feelings about race and about the land.

Like most people from small and poor countries, I have little experience of fiction about my home, so I found it very interesting in that way. For example, there's something about the solidarity of the small community that's still there:
"It's not customary in this country, is it?" he asked slowly, out of the depths of his bewilderment. And he saw, as he spoke, that the phrase 'this country' which is like a call to solidarity for most white people, meant nothing to her.

A powerful and unusual book. It made me glad Independence came when it did, so I could grow up in Zimbabwe, not Rhodesia.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

MRS CRADDOCK by W. Somerset Maugham

Maugham's OF HUMAN BONDAGE is life changingly wonderful (or at least I thought so in my twenties), so I had high hopes for MRS CRADDOCK. It's neither life changing nor wonderful, but it's still to be recommended. It tells the story of a wealthy young lady called Bertha, who falls madly in love with one of tenant farmers on her estate, and marries him in face of huge opposition. Appallingly, for her, everyone comes around to loving him, just as she falls out of love with him.

For a novel of this period, the book is shockingly frank about physical desire. I was not surprised to learn it had to be published with excisions at first. Bertha is obssessed with his 'manly hands' and his 'big mouth', and entirely overlooks his tiny brain in consequence. It is not however his stupidity that wears her down, but rather his placidity. Bertha is a wildly passionate woman, and her husband is not. Thus he never gives her 'enough' love, and this is the central issue of their marriage. She tries to leave him, and almost runs away with an eighteen year old, but in the end simply finds a way to live with him, rather unhappily. One day she comes down overdressed to dinner, and encapsulates the central issue of the novel with this comment, said under her breath: "That is my whole life . .. to eat cold mutton and mashed potatoes in a ball dress and all my diamonds."

It's a pretty sad story, but Maugham is always a funny writer. Here he is on a dull and pretentious dinner party: "It is an axiom of narration that truth should coincide with probability, and the realist is perpetually hampered by the wild exaggeration of the actual facts. A verbatim report of the conversations at Mrs Branderton's dinner party would read like shrieking caricature." This I find to be very true - it's amazing how often what happens in real life would appear fantastical if in fiction.

I also quite enjoyed this little snippet: "Sometimes in the twilight of winter afternoons, when the mind was naturally led to a contemplation of the vanity of existence and futility of all human endeavour, she would be seized with melancholy." I don't know why but I found this both funny and sad, much like this odd little novel over all.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

THE HISTORY OF MARY PRINCE: A WEST INDIAN SLAVE by Mary Prince

This short book is Mary Prince's account of her life as a slave in the West Indies and later in London at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

What struck me particularly in her account was the huge variability in quality of her life, which entirely depended on the whim of her owners. Obviously, at all times slavery is completely immoral, but in the first family to who she belongs she is treated quite well and expresses great affection for the children she looks after. However, when she is then sold, she is separated from her mother and siblings and goes to a very harsh couple. With them, she works incessantly, from before dawn to well past dark, and is beaten for even small infractions. Unfortunately she is then sold again, to an even worse family, who force her to work collecting salt. All the slaves have to stand in salt water all day, so they acquire terrible boils. Sometimes they have to work all night, in which case no alteration is made; they still have to work all the next day. This couple then takes her to England with them when they go their on a visit. Now apparently at this time slavery was illegal in England, but legal in the colonies, so she is theoretically free to leave at any time. It struck me as very odd that her owners did not think she would leave, but curiously she does not for many months, until their treatment becomes so terrible that she goes to see some of the abolitionist activists, who assist her to leave. Her previous owner bizarrely then tries to blacken her name, so she can get no other employment and will be forced to come back to him. Even more weirdly, when he is offered her full price for her freedom (so she can go back to Antigua and be there free also), he refuses this too, presumably out of malice.

This book has a lengthy preface, in which the abolitionist who assisted her tries to convince the British public of the honesty of her words and the importance of total abolition across the Empire. It was very interesting to see what were the real debates of the period. It appears that many people did not believe that such awful things could possibly be happening. For example, Mary tells us that one of the old men was tortured by the owner, who kept throwing extra salt in his wounds so he would never heal. He didn't do this to the other slaves. You can see where this seems so unimaginably horrible that you might doubt it's reality, and he spends much of the pamphlet explaining that slavery brutalizes owners also. I find it interesting, just by the by, how little one hears about the efforts of abolitionists, which was after all really key to ending slavery. Perhaps, as they were mostly religious people, it is because they are now unfashionable?

There are also a couple of pages at the end by a West African called Asa-Asa, who tells us how he was abducted. This is very sad. The neighbouring people set his village alight, and then returned over the course of about a month to capture any and everyone they could. He does not know what happened to his family as he hid in a tree and they kept running when their enemies came. It sounds pretty much exactly like what you hear about happening today in DRC. He also tells us he changed hands as a slave five or six times within Africa itself, before he was sold to a white person, which also says something pretty sad about slavery in Africa at the time.



Tuesday, 26 August 2014

THE LIVES OF OTHERS by Neel Mukherjee

When I saw this novel described as a Dickensian romp through Bengal in the 1970s I hit BUY NOW without thinking. I do love a sweeping novel of the twentieth century in India. I am you will therefore find strangely well informed about subjects such as Partition. Not that I could tell you much about the actual border of Pakistan, but how people felt about the border with Pakistan, that I am well informed on. I am not sure why I like this kind of fiction so much; I suspect that it is because India’s history in the twentieth century mirror Africa’s in an interesting way, so it is like reading about your own story in a new setting.

This novel tells the story of one extended family living in a single house. The sons of the house are slowly losing the modest fortune acquired by the patriarch. It is full of interesting characters, from the bitter and unmarried sister, to the neglected child prodigy, to the older son who is becoming an alcoholic. The story is intercut with letters sent home from one of the children, who has become a Naxalite. Get ready to have your mind blown, and to feel you are a wussy: these are middle class university students who choose to go and live in poverty with the villagers so as to enlighten them about capitalism and forment a class war. Yes, that is their plan. It is pretty crazy. For example, these ordinary middle class men murder a money-lender in cold blood to provoke an uprising. They suffer a lot (though not as much as the money-lender), and do not meet with unmitigated success. However, extra points to the Kindle dictionary, for having a definition for Naxalite, and minus points to me: where is my idealism? All I thought about in university were grades and boys.

The novel is not profoundly memorable, but it is soothing and absorbing, and has some good writing. Here we are on the unmarried sister, who Mukherjee likes to emphasize is very very ugly:
Every since Chhaya had learned to identify the face looking back at her from the mirror as her own, she had been intimate with the fact . .. .of her own ugliness, and harder still, with the awareness that the world outside shared the knowledge too. To know that you are ugly is one thing, but to grow up with the imprint that it leaves on others’ thoughts, facial expressions, murmurs, talk, gossip is quite another; the former is a reckoning with oneself, the latter an instilling of that most adamantine knowledge of all: that the world is at is, and knocking your head against its hard shell is only going to break you, not dent the world.

In the end, there is death by torture, and death by suicide – yawn – contemporary fiction loves a good despairing finale. But it’s a good book over all, and I recommend it, particularly if you stop about twenty pages before the end.

SOME HOPE by Edward St Aubyn

SOME HOPE is the last book in the Patrick Melrose trilogy, and the weakest. Patrick is in his thirties, over his drug addiction, and attending a party. Many of the characters from previous books resurface, to various degrees of resolution.

Patrick is less fun now than when he was a drug addict. There’s an awful lot of moaning, and blaming everyone’s parents. Sample: “as his struggle against drugs grew more successful, he saw how it had masked a struggle not to become like his father.” Barf.

Three books in the social milieu is also getting a little wearing. There’s only so much of self-congratulatory snobbery one can handle. Poor old Patrick tells us he still believes that ‘rich people are more interesting than poor ones, or titled people more interesting than untitled ones.’ The mind boggles. There are also an awful lot of social climbers. Here’s one gold digging wife, on her new husband:
He may be worth two hundred and forty million dollars, but is he going to spend it? . . . . You think it’s all going to be private planes, and the next thing you know he’s asking for a doggy bag in a restaurant, or implying that you ought to be doing the cooking. It’s a complete nightmare.
I can’t believe anyone is actually like this; certainly I’ve never met them – but perhaps they do exist, and I should be glad I don’t have the kind of money that would mean I would meet them.

St Aubyn is a fine writer, and if I didn’t enjoy all the books quite the same, I’m certainly glad I read this trilogy.

BAD NEWS by Edward St Aubyn

In this novel, the second in the Patrick Melrose series, Patrick is in his twenties and struggling with a major drug addiction.

As with the other novels, there is much precise prose to enjoy. As, for example, “he could feel the onset of withdrawal, like a litter of drowning kittens in the sack of his stomach.” Or, this, on stepping out into bright daylight: “This must be what the oyster feels when the lemon juice falls.” Or: “Kay told him about her own dying parents. ‘You have to start looking after them badly before you’ve got over the shock of how badly they looked after you,’ she said.

However, I’ve yet to read a novel about addiction that isn’t fundamentally dull, and this novel is no exception. St Aubyn does his best, structuring the novel around a few days during which Patrick is collecting his father’s ashes, but there’s not much he can do with the boring routine of wanting to shoot up, and then shooting up, and then feeling bad and wanting to shoot up again. I guess ex-addicts remember it as thrilling, but I struggle to find it so. There are some particularly bad pages where he recounts the various fragmented voices he heard while high, which are almost as bad as a dream sequence.

I know it’s mean of me, but it’s also hard to feel bad for someone who admits he never “spent less than five thousand dollars a week on heroin and cocaine,” and who gorges on expensive wine he doesn’t really taste. Presented with a large bill:
He was secretly pleased. Capital erosion was another way to waste his substance, to become as thin and hollow as he felt, to lighten the burden of undeserved good fortune, and commit a symbolic suicide while he still dithered about the real one. He also nursed the opposite fantasy that when he became penniless he would discover some incandescent purpose born of his need to make money.

There’s also a bit of misogyny. Here is his entirely unbelievable attempt to write from a woman’s perspective:
It was enough to make a girl feel guilty about being so attractive. She tried to avoid it, but she had spent too much of her life sitting opposite hangdog men she had nothing in common with, their eyes burning with reproach, and the conversation long congealed and mouldy, like something from way way way back in the icebox, something you must have been crazy to have bought in the first place.
I knows boys think that girls think like this, but I've never met one that does.

So, Book 2 not quite as good as Book 1. I have hopes for Book 3.


HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson

Well, this is a book of an entirely different order. It makes you want to lay down your weapons and surrender, in the face of such an enormous achievement.

This is Robinson’s first novel. There is twenty five years between it and her second, GILEAD, which I read recently, and which also amazed me.

HOUSEKEEPING is the story of two young girls who are dropped off by their mother with their grandmother in the small town of Fingerbone one afternoon. The mother then commits suicide by driving into the lake there. The grandmother later dies, and the two girls are looked after by their aunt, who has been homeless for some decades. She still lives as a transient even in their home, pinning money to her clothes, sleeping with her shoes on, and so forth. The older girl, Lucille, leaves home as their aunt’s behavior grows stranger. The younger, Ruthie, eventually runs away with her aunt to become a transient also when the town threatens to separate them.

This being Robinson, the homelessness in this novel is not just homelessness. Instead, it is a meditation on our larger loneliness in the world.
Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. So shoes are won and hassocks are sat upon and finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on, just as the wind in the orchard picks up the leaves from the ground as if there were no other pleasure in the world but brown leaves, as it would deck, clothe, flesh itself in flourishes of dusty brown apples leaves, and then drops them all in a heap at the side of the house and goes on.

In this world, everything has other layers, and purposes, as if it was not just a random collection of facts, but had some greater design or meaning. It’s steeped in the Bible in a way I’ve not encountered in any book written in this, or even the last century. It’s like taking a break from our prosaic times. Here she is in Fingerbone’s lake, imagining it at the resurrection:
Add to them the swimmers, the boaters and canoers, and in such a crowd my mother would hardly seem remarkable. There would be a general reclaiming of fallen buttons and misplaced spectacles, of neighbours and kin, till time and error and accident were undone, and the world became comprehensible and whole.

It’s also very well observed; here she is on walking in the forest: "But the deep woods are as dark and stiff and as full of their own odors as the parlor of an old house. We would walk among those great legs, hearing the enthralled and incessant murmurings far above our heads, like children at a funeral."
And on a teenage girl’s experience of other people’s opinions: "Lucille had a familiar, Rosette Brown, whom she feared and admired, and through whose eyes she continually imagined she saw."

And here she is on Fingerbone:
What with the lake and the railroads, and what with the blizzards and floods and barn fires and forest fires and the general availability of shotguns and bear traps and homemade liquor and dynamite, what with the prevalence of loneliness and religion and the rages and ecstasies they induce, and the closeness of families, violence was inevitable.

But what’s so powerful is the alternate meanings she sees in the ordinary. I fear she has forever destroyed for me puddles. Here she is, after discussing Noah and the flood:
And let God purge this wicked sadness away with a flood, and let the waters recede to pools and ponds and ditches, and let every one of them mirror heaven. Still, they taste a bit of blood and hair. One cannot cup one’s hand and drink from the rim of any lake without remembering that mothers have drowned in it, lifting their children toward the air, though they must have known as they did that soon enough the deluge would take all the children, too, even if their arms could have held them up.

I hope also to be able to forget eventually this description of the dawn chorus:
“That’s what frightens the birds,” Sylvie assured us, because she had never seen the sun come up but the birds first rose and cried what warning they could.

I am usually a great one for plot and character, and while I did not greatly care for either the plot or the characters, I still felt like blubbing at the end of this almost impossibly good novel.

Friday, 8 August 2014

THE THIRTY NINE STEPS by John Buchan

In my never-ending quest for something to read I have taken to scanning the Penguin Classic lists on my Kindle. This was the only one in the first fifty or so I hadn’t read, though I have seen the play, so I thought I’d give it a try. Basically, stick with the play. This is a very silly boy’s own adventure, though I did enjoy that the boy was a colonial from Rhodesia (which is now Zimbabwe). The British people in the novel seemed to regard anyone who had survived Africa with awe, and consider him capable of all kinds of derring-do. I don’t know why I never get this kind of response from the British.

NEVER MIND by Edward St Aubyn

I read MOTHER’S MILK, the last of the Patrick Melrose novels, first, and enjoyed it so much that I’ve decided to go back to the beginning, and read them all.

In MOTHER’S MILK Patrick is in his forties, but in NEVER MIND he is just five. The books are similar though in being lucidly written, witty, and extremely well observed. Here is Patrick’s view on puddles:
In winter there was ice on the puddles, you could see the bubbles trapped underneath and the air couldn’t breathe: it had been ducked by the ice and held under, and he hated that because it was so unfair and so he always smashed the ice to let the air go free.
Nothing will destroy the a cheerfully comic tone of novel quite like a five year old boy being raped by his father, which is what happens about half way through this book. It’s particularly sad, given that the book is apparently autobiographical, and it becomes clear why the entire novel is focusing on just this one day out of Patrick’s childhood.

The father, we learn, is a controlling and unpleasant man, who has thoroughly browbeaten his wife. At one point, after she complains that figs are going to waste, rotting under the tree they have fallen from, he makes he get down on he hands and knees to eat them all. The mother only feels happy in her Buick because to her the “car was like a consulate in a strange city, and she moved towards it with the urgency of a robbed tourist.”

While the father is unpleasant, so too are most other characters. Patrick’s family and friends all live on inherited wealth, and I found it bizarre how much time the spent showing off about their finances. I was surprised by how repellent I found it. I can see showing off if you made the money yourself, but what is the point of showing off if it was your great-great-great grandfather that made it? Perhaps I am just jealous?

Saturday, 2 August 2014

THE BELL by Iris Murdoch

I seem to be reading a number of books at the moment that might best be described as 'unexpectedly religious,' and THE BELL is one of these. It tells the story of a commune that has sprung up around an Abbey in rural England. Not everyone at the commune is there for religious reasons, but everyone reaches a new idea of the meaning of their lives by being there.

The central character is a man named Michael, who is gay. This is the forties, so he doesn't think of himself as being gay, however, but as a 'pervert,' and this is at the heart of all his problems. He wants to be a priest, but feels he cannot, and spends much of his energy trying not to be kiss attractive young men (Don't we all). He is succeeding pretty well and suppressing himself until an eighteen year old arrives in the commune, and he kisses him by accident. Cue much agonising, both for him, and the boy, Toby: "Toby had received, though not yet digested, one of the earliest lessons of adult life: that one is never secure. At any moment once can be removed from a state of guileless serenity and plunged into its opposite, without any intermediate condition, so high about us do the waters rise of our own and other people's imperfection."

I tried to feel for Michael, but it was hard to taking truly seriously the idea that being gay might genuinely be perceived as such a curse. I guess it's testament to how far our society has come, that I can struggle to relate.

While I couldn't really care for the plot, I continue to admire Murdoch's writing very much. Try this, about a young woman from London visiting the commune:
She was astonished by the variety of creatures which could be seen on even the most casual stroll about the estate. She felt the slightly scandalised suprise of the true town dweller that all these beasts should be here, displaying themselves, quite free, and getting on with their own lives perfectly unmindful of human patronage and protection.

Or this, on the Abbey's walls: "The moonlight made the high wall look insubstantial and yet somehow alive, with that tense look of deserted human places at night." I love that - 'the tense look' - I think about it often now when I'm in cities at night.




Friday, 1 August 2014

MOTHER'S MILK by Edward St Aubyn

This is a book that makes me almost look forward to my mid-life crisis, if it's as funny and insightful as this one.

The crisis in question belongs to a certain Patrick Melrose, and its unfolding is described across four year's worth of summer holidays. As he describes it: "He tried to remind himself what his youth had really been like, but all he could remember was the abundance of sex and the sense of potential greatness, replaced, as his view closed in on the present, by the disappearance of sex and the sense of wasted potential." On his daily life: "Most of the time, he couldn't even imagine the world from his own point of view. He relied on nightfall to give him a crash course in the real despair that underlay the stale, remote, patchily pleasurable days." I liked this very much. During unhappy periods, I always think it's key to remember that your day time view of your life is the real one, not your night time view; but he takes the opposite approach.

For a book on despair, it's hilariously funny. Patrick wants to have sex with everyone he sees, and here he is on a bikini clad woman he sees:
Oh God, why has life so badly organised? Why couldn't he just hoist her onto a hot car bonnet and tear off that turquoise excuse for a bikini bottom? She wanted it, he wanted it. Well, anyway, he wanted it. She probably wanted exactly what she had, the power to disturb every homosexual man - and let's not forget our lesbian colleagues, he added with mayoral unction - who she scythed through as she strolled back and forth between her depressing boyfriend and her nippy little car. She walked by, he staggered on. She might as well have choppped off his genitals and chucked them in the sand. He could feel the blood running down his legs, hear the dogs squabbling over the unexpected meat. He wanted to sit down again, to lie down, to bury himself deep underground.

One source of his despair is the fact that he feels abandoned by his wife, who is entirely focused on their two small children. I found this deeply irritating. If you feel your wife is doing too much parenting, how about DOING SOME PARENTING YOURSELF. However the wife is also very irritating, being rather brainless. "As she hoisted (the baby) into her arms, she felt again the extent to which motherhood had destroyed her solitude. . . . Now she was very rarely alone, and if she was, her thoughts were commandeered by her family obligations. Neglected meanings piled up like unopened letters. She knew they contained ever more threatening reminders that her life was unexamined." However, the author makes an interesting point in her defense: " . . . she was trying to survive the ceaseless demands of her sons, and the destructive effect on a solitary nature of spending years without a moment of solitude." I've often wondered how solitary parents feel about the amount of time they spend with their children.

I did have some minor quibbles. It's very much a book of the British upper class, so it's as narrow as that group, with friends with who were "on the same stair at Trinity," and people who "Without the editorial influence of the word 'afford,' their desires rambled on like unstoppable bores, relentless and whimsical at the same time." There's also a lot of whining about how everything is their parents' fault, which is annoying. However, over all, fantastic book. I'm delighted to find that there are three previous Patrick Melrose novels. I am reading them all.


Tuesday, 29 July 2014

KEEPERS OF THE HOUSE by Shirely Ann Grau

I dread finishing a book these days, because it will mean I need to find a new book. This is not easily done. I tried for a while reading past Booker winners, but this was not a success. The Booker appears to favour novelists who wish they were poets, and to disfavour those who have plots. I have therefore begun the Pulitzer back list, giving such recent titles as THE GOLDFINCH and THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON. This title is the 1964 winner, and belongs to a genre charmingly known as Southern Gothic.

KEEPERS OF THE HOUSE covers some one hundred and fifty years of the Howland family, who own a large piece of land in the South. We cross about four generations, some of them a little half-heartedly. The primary story is about one Howland who falls in love with a black woman, and brings up his white grandchild with his mixed race children. The revelation of the existence of these mixed race children is deeply upsetting to the white community, and eventually forces the last Howland we meet to make a brave stand against them.

I found this novel somewhat hard to relate to; I think it is so deeply and genuinely Southern that I did not really understand what was going on. For example, when we find out that the white man secretly married the black woman, in order to legitimise the children, I was completely surprised that for the community this is a huge turning point that changes everything. The author seemed to take it for granted that I would understand the implications; I'm sort of glad that I'm apparently too innocent. So I didn't particularly relate to the Southern, but then I did not relate to the Gothic either; there was lots of disconnected poetry, and mysterious dead-ends, such as one lengthy funeral for a character we've barely met.

So, now I need to find something else to read.

HARD TIMES by Charles Dickens

HARD TIMES is a minor work, and it shows.

One wonders how the same man who wrote GREAT EXPECTATIONS and A CHRISTMAS CAROL also came up with this boring preachy book. It tells the story of a gentelman who has brought his children up on the basis that the only thing worth engaging with is facts, entirely ruling out feeling or imagination. In a totally expected plot twist, this being Dickens, an orphan enters their home. Full to bursting with feeling, she is tiresomely obviously right about everything. She is however ignored, with the older daughter marrying a rich man, a friend of her father's, untroubled by her lack of feelings for him. The son falls apart morally, stealing some money, and attempting to blame the crime on an annoyingly saintly local working man. Just writing about this book is annoying me afresh. The big conclusion sees everyone coming around to the view that the orphan was right all along, and that feelings are as important as facts. For me, the fact was I felt like puking.

There was only one good bit, this description of a bar: "She stopped, at twilight, at the door of a mean little public house, with dim red lights on it. As haggard and shabby, as if, for want of custom, it had itself taken to drinking, and had gone the way all drunkards go, and was very near the end of it." A charming description, but probably not quite worth slogging through the whole book for.

PS: I trust you have all assigned extra points to me for avoiding any kind of jokes of the "I had a hard time reading this" variety. It was struggle, let me tell you.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

LEAN IN by Sheryl Sandberg

I typically do not read business books, assuming they are largely intended for morons. I read LEAN IN largely because of a speedy manicurist. I was in Lagos, and the lady finished my nails before my friend's, so I flicked through her copy of this book, and decided I might be a moron it was intended for. I'm glad I read it. It was interesting, and I've thought about it frequently since.

Sandberg's core message is essentially that while it is undoubtedly true that patriachal structures limit womens' achievements, so too do women themselves. Womens' internal beliefs as effectively stand in their way as do external factors. She argues that women ought to 'back themselves.' They should have more faith in their abilities, and in the fact that they will be able to exercise those abilities professionally while also having a family and friends.

There is much interesting data. For example:
. . .the risk of divorce reduces by about half when a wife earns half the income and a husband does half the housework
and
Today, stay at home mothers spend about seventeen hours per week on primary child care, on average, while mothers who work outside the home spend about eleven hours. This means that an employed mother today spends about the same amount of time on primary child care activities as a nonemployed mother did in 1975. . . . Today, a 'good mother' is always around and always devoted to the needs of her children. Sociologists call this relatively new phenomenon 'intensive mothering' and it has culturally elevated the importance of women spending large amounts of time with their children.

There's much well known stuff on how the same CV given a male and a female name will invariably be reviewed more favourably in the former case; on how men routinely overestimate their performance on standard tests and women routinely under-estimate them; and so forth. My colleague found this book inspiring; I found it depressing. It's not so much the data that kills you, as the personal anecdotes of a woman who has been in business for over thirty years. Here she is on the fact that when a new position comes up, men are banging on her door to be considered, while women virtually never are, until she encourages them.
I have had countless conversations where women responded to this encouragement by saying, "I'm just not sure I'd be good at that." Or "That sounds exciting, but I've never done anything like it before." Or "I still have a lot to learn in my current role." I rarely, if ever, heard these kinds of comments from men.

I guess we're screwed. It makes me wish I was born fifty years later, except for the whole oceans rising thing.

Friday, 18 July 2014

BOYHOOD ISLAND by Karl Ove Knausgaard

This is book 3 in a 6 part series. It is however not about dragons, or boy wizards, or whatever; but instead the autobiography of one Norwegian man. One might wonder how one can fill 3000 pages with a life not full of fire-breathing fictional characters, but somehow Knausgaard manages it. I read his A MAN IN LOVE earlier this year, which covers his second marriage, and the birth of his children. This next novel goes back in time, to cover his childhood ages six to twelve.

I loved A MAN IN LOVE, which was a very comforting account of wrong turns and missed opportunities. I'm not quite so fond of BOYHOOD ISLAND, perhaps because one childhood is much like another. Thus there is much in the way of learning to swim, pee-ing out doors, finding pornographic magazines, and etc. There is however much about it that is vintage Karl Ove, which I really enjoyed. (So intimate are these books, its hard to think of him by his surname.) For example: Oh, isnt that why shadows get longer in the evening? They are reaching out for the night, this tidal water of darkness that washes over the earth to fulfil for a few hours the shadows' innermost yearnings. Or, the following, which I've been thinking a lot about as I am on a family holiday, so there is much in the way of photography: "It is the era that we take photos of, not the people in it, they can't be captured. Not even the people in my immediate circle can."

In A MAN IN LOVE we learn that Karl Ove had a troubled relationship with his father. He does seem a very stern disciplinarian, with very harsh punishments for lost socks. We must recall though that this is all told from the child's perspective, so I'm not sure how trustworthy it all is. Karl Ove seems to have been something of a wimp. He is scared of normal things, eg., headless men, mummies, but also an array of other things: e.g., "I was so afraid of the hot water in the bathroom." I"m not sure he's a totally reliable narrator.

Lastly, I did enjoy once again being immersed in the almost creepy safety of Scandinavia. Speaking of a photo, he says his father is "sitting on a mountainside drinking coffee from the same red Thermos top, as he forgot to pack any cups" What! I thought the lid of the Thermos was supposed to be a cup? I thought that was the point?

I can't wait for Book 4. Maybe we'll get some dragons.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON by Adam Johnson

THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON is a strange novel, being an action fantasy disguised as a literary novel set in North Korea. It tells the story of an orphan who is sure he is not an orphan, because the terrible treatment he receives from the orphan master is only explicable for him as an attempt to hid his great affection for his son. This sad and weird reasoning sets the tone for what is a very odd book.

The orphan goes on to be in the army, then on a fishing boat, then in a prison mine, then he is the prime taekwondo hero of North Korea, before going on to torture and death. I think it's supposed to be magically real, but I just found it so unlikely as to be difficult to engage with. However, I do wonder how else one can write a novel about North Korea, a country so utterly improbable that I suspect any story there would not seem probable. The book gives horrible detail on the experience of prison mines, for example, where prisoners are pushed in to the mine, and never let out again at all. They simply come to the gate when they find ore, and are able to exchange the ore for candles and food, but they never seen sunshine again. It's also horribly comic, as when a Korean movie star sees CASABLANCA for the first time, and asks: "But I do not understand. What is this film glorifying?"

While I did not enjoy the book very much, I did find it interesting to learn about North Korea. I can't believe such a country actually exists; it seems like some kind of low budget horror movie, not a real place on the map.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

THE SHOCK OF THE FALL BY Nathan Filer

This book is full of stuff British culture loves:
- Children who die
- Children with special needs
- Mental illness
- NHS cuts

Basically this child who has special needs dies because of a mistake made by this other child who has a mental illness. Later this child is affected by NHS cuts. I hate to be a hater, but BLAH BLAH BLAH.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson

This is a marvelous book. Nothing much happens in it – it’s just the everyday diary of a elderly pastor in the Midwest – but I felt like blubbing all the way through. He’s near the end of his life, and knows it, so much of the diary is about the joy of that 'every day'. He married late, and so his son is very young. Here’s the description:
. . . Your hair is straight and dark, and your skin is very fair. I suppose you’re not prettier than most children. You’re just a nice looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but its your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined. I’m about to put on imperishability.In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye
If we are supposed to get better, and wiser, as we get older, its only through persistent struggle, and this diary is much also about that struggle. He gives us much good advice, such as “Adulthood is a wonderful thing, and brief. You must be sure to enjoy it while it lasts.” Or:
In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilisations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable – which I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live
Perhaps what gives this book its particular melancholy is the extent to which the pastor has accepted all that is lost. “When I was a young boy I used to get up before dawn every dawn of the world to fetch water and firewood. It was a very different life then. I remember walking out into the dark and feeling as if the dark were a great, cool sea and the houses and the sheds and the woods were all adrift in it, just about to ease off their moorings. I always felt like an intruder then, and I still do, as if the darkness had a claim on everything, one that I violated just by stepping out my door. This morning the world by moonlight seemed to be an immemorial acquaintance I had always meant to befriend. If there was ever a chance, it has passed. Strange to say, I feel a little that way about myself."

I was also struck in reading it by the great heritage that the Bible has been to the world of literature. This book just reeks of Bible, and I mean that in a good way. Here he speaks about what it will be like to be re-united with his dead wife when he dies: “I have wondered about that for many years. Well, this old seed is about to drop into the ground. Then I’ll know."

This was Robinson’s second novel, 25 years after her first. I don’t know if she spent all 25 years writing it, but if so it was time well spent. It might have taken a few years just to come up with this:
This morning Kansas rolled out its sleep into a sunlight grandly announced, proclaimed throughout heaven – one more of a very finite number of days that this old prairie has been called Kansas, or Iowa. But it has all been one day, that first day. Light is constant, we just turn over in it.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

THE END OF THE AFFAIR by Graham Greene

This is a book that begins as a love story and ends in a bizarre battle against god. This man is having a love affair with this married woman. It's during the Blitz, and one day the house they're in is hit. The woman sees the man lying under a door, and thinks he is dead. She prays to God to bring him back to life, saying that if he does, she will give up the affair. He's not really dead (or God brings him back to life, as you prefer) and so she feels bound to follow through with this strange deal. Two years of suffering on both sides begin. The man is immensely angry with god, viewing him as some kind of love rival (?). This is not even the weird part yet. In a deeply surreal turn of events, after she dies, various miracles begin to occur, associated with her death, leaving the man even angrier at God, who he feels is trying to force him into a life of meaning. But he doesn't want eternal meaning, he just wants sex. Don't we all.

Here's him on the problem, in his own words:
I sat on my bed and I said to God: You've taken her, but You haven't got me yet. I know Your cunning. It's You who take us up to a high place and offer us the whole universe. You're a devil, God, tempting us to leap. But I don't want Your peace and I don't want Your love. I wanted something very simple and very easy; I wanted Sarah for a lifetime and You took her away. With Your great schemes You ruin our happiness like a harvester ruins a mouse's nest: I hate You, God, I hate You as though You existed.

It's a very interesting book, giving lots to think about. It's also beautifully written. Here he is at a tube station at evening: "The man who fed the sparrows had gone and the woman with the brown-paper parcel, the fruit-sellers cried like animals in the dusk outside the station. It was as if the shutters were going up on the whole world; soon we should all of us be abandoned to our own devices" And here he is angry at himself one night: " . . . my self pity and hatred walked hand in hand across the darkening Common like idiots without a keeper."

There's only one weak aspect, where we are treated to an extract from the lady's diary. This is mushy, emotional, awkward writing, and I fear very much is what Mr Greene, a man of an earlier generation, really thinks women's internal lives are like. (As the central character of the novel says: "I have always found it hard to feel sexual desire without some sense of superiority, mental or physical"). I guess we will just have to give him a pass, because really, what a lovely novelist he is.

Monday, 2 June 2014

SHOTGUN LOVE SONGS by Nickolas Butler

All success is mystery, but that of SHOTGUN LOVE STORIES is an especially mysterious mystery. It is a story about four male friends who grew up in the same small Wisconsin town, and have remained close into adulthood. It is apparently something of a best seller. Clearly I am missing something because I have already pretty much forgotten what it was about. Basically, blah blah awkward teens, blah blah, marriage, blah blah, one of us is an alcoholic, blah blah, redemption

LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

This is a really strange concept for a book. It tells the story of a woman named Ursula, born in 1910, but it tells it multiple times, with multiple different outcomes, dependent on tiny choices that Ursula makes in her daily life. So for example, in one version she dies in childhood, sucked under by a wave after having gone out too far into the sea; in another, she goes by the back stairs, instead of the front, and is raped, sending her life into a downward spiral; in another, she meets a man and marries him, and in another, she never meets him, and marries someone else. In one life, she chooses one degree, and in another, a different one, and her life spools out completely differently in either choice.

This is an anxious book, if one thinks about it too deeply, because its topic is really all the paths not chosen; and that is always a source of worry and distress – I believe for everyone. It’s very well written though, and really masterful at keeping you interested as you go back and forth on the same ground in different configuration perhaps twenty times. Also, it includes this horrifying and yet informative description of how to prepare calf’s tongue:
“Mrs Glover meanwhile was more than fully occupied with pressing a calf’s tongue, removing the gristle and bone and rolling it up before squeezing it into the tongue press . . .”I am not sure I have ever eaten tongue, and after that sentence I don’t think I ever will. That’s one path I’m very happy not to take.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

ANNA OF THE FIVE TOWNS by Arnold Bennett

Certain novels remain in circulation only because their authors are famous for other, much better books. Such is ANNA OF THE FIVE TOWNS.

The story revolves around Anna Tellwright, a young woman whose father is a controlling miser. She is courted by the local heart throb, Henry Mynors, and agrees to marry him. She is however actually in love with a certain Willy Price, but is such a giant wimp that she never articulates that fact to herself, and so ends up marrying Mynors. Willie meanwhile is disgraced when his father's financial dealings are revealed, and so the village buys him a ticket to Australia. In despair, he throws himself into a well, and In a bizarre anti-climax, no one finds out about his suicide but assume he is Australia, that country being apparently the same as being dead.

However, there is a visit to a pottery factory, which is interesting. How do you like this, regarding the female potters: "An infinitesimal proportion of them, from among the branch known as ground-layers, die of lead-poisoning, a fact which adds pathos to their frivolous charm." Not exactly Marx and Engels, is it.

Friday, 23 May 2014

THE REMAINS OF THE DAY by Kazuo Ishiguro

Now here is a book that I thought would break an immutable rule, and be that book that is worse than the movie.

That was my impression for about the first 90%. But then Ishiguro comes for you with a knife, and you realise the whole thing is perfectly constructed, absolutely killer, and has got not much to do with the film at all. Based on the movie, I thought it was going to be a romance; but it's not. It's about the absence of romance; about missed chances and love not lost but never found. It reminds me of THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, a novel I blubbed through while listening on audio book as I drove across rural South Africa. But that's another story.

REMAINS OF THE DAY occurs over the course of a few days' motoring holiday taken by a butler in the 1950s. During the course of the trip he reflects on his life, and tells the story of his many years of service at one of England's 'great homes.' Much of the story involves his former employer, Lord Darlington, who tried to make peace with the Germans before the war, and came to be seen by many as a Nazi sympathiser. Almost at the periphery of the story is the housekeeper, a Miss Kenton, who he spends much time with - in a professional capacity, as he continually reminds us - and who eventually leaves the house to get married. He goes to visit her on this motoring trip, having not seen her in twenty years, and realises at last what he missed out on.

He sits on a pier, at the end, talking to a stranger as the street lights come on The butler begins to talk about Lord Darlington: "He wasn't a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. . . I trusted I was doing something worth while. I can't even say I made my own mistakes." The stranger tells him he shouldn't look back, and get depressed, and that the evening is the best part of the day, and should be enjoyed, especially as an older man, who has not much time left. Left alone, the butler thinks to himself:
Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day. After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished? The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and me, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services. What is the point in worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one's life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and me at least try to make a small contribution count for something true and worthy. And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that is in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.

I sure as hell hope I am making my own mistakes.

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 ...