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
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 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


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.


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