Thursday, 31 December 2015

WHAT I READ IN 2015

Time for the annual review of what I read this year – and guys, it’s big news, because for the first time ever I actually read more books by women than men this year. Admittedly this is because in a fit of despair I did some major re-reading, mostly Jane Austen and of Nancy Mitford, who are always very cheering. However! It’s still something: 33 of the 60.

Best of the year is obviously lead by Austen. But it’s hardly fair to put her in the race, like running a race horse against chickens. So the best of the rest: the quarter from Elena Ferrente of MY BRILLIANT FRIEND, THE STORY OF A NEW NAME, THOSE WHO LEAVE AND THOSE WHO STAY, and THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD. It’s a magnificent series on a pair of friends from Naples in the early twentieth century. In a sign that it truly is the end of days, the publishers have felt it necessary to brand this major literary achievement as chick lit. I pity those who buy it as chick lit, as they will be horrified - its all about how boring your children are and how to abandon old friends who aren’t working for you anymore. REUNION by Fred Uhlman is a wonderful novella about the effect of the rise of the Nazis on a pair of high school boys; THE KNOWN WORLD by Edward P Jones is a fantastic huge story of slavery in the American South; and A NOTABLE WOMAN by Jean Lucey Pratt is a set of real life diaries covering fifty years in the life of an ordinary woman that had me blubbing in Luxor airport.

Worst of the year is I’m sorry to say THE NAKED AND THE DEAD by Norman Mailor, which is a very young man’s view of the glamour of war; the terrible MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA by Arthur Golden, which is insulting to Asian prostitutes everywhere, and OSCAR AND LUCINDA by Peter Carey, which is just misery without a purpose. Here's the list


• OSCAR AND LUCINDA by Peter Carey
• A KISS BEFORE DYING by Ira Levin
• STATION ELEVEN by Emily St John Mandel
• DEATH ON THE NILE by Agatha Christie
• TROLLOPE by Victoria Glendinning
• TOBACCO ROAD by Eskine Caldwell
• REQUIEM FOR A WREN by Nevil Shute
• TRAVELS WITH CHARLIE by John Steinbeck
• THE YACOUBIAN BUILDING by Alaa al Aswany
• BEING MORTAL: ILLNESS, MEDICINE, AND WHAT MATTERS AT THE END by Atul Gawande
• WHEN THE DOVES DISAPPEARED by Sofi Oksanen
• A NOTABLE WOMAN: THE ROMANTIC JOURNALS OF JEAN LUCEY PRATT ed. Simon Garfield
• BOOK OF MEMORY by Petina Gappah
• DON’T TELL ALFRED by Nancy Mitford
• A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD by Anne Tyler
• YEAR OF WONDERS by Geraldine Brooks
• HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE by Charles Yu
• FARENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury
• MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA by Arthur Golden
• THE LONEY by Andrew Michael Hurley
• THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir
• A SUNDAY AT THE POOL IN KIGALI BY Gil Courtemanche
• MARCH by Geraldine Brooks
• ALL MY PUNY SORROWS by Miriam Toews
• REUNION by Fred Uhlman
• THE ROYAL WE by Jessica Morgan and Heather Cocks
• THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT by Elena Ferrante
• THE DISCOMFORT ZONE by Jonathan Franzen
• THE FISHERMEN by Chigozi Obioma
• MY BRILLIANT FRIEND, and THE STORY OF A NEW NAME and THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD by Elena Ferrante
• THE END OF THE STORY by Lydia Davis
• WESTWOOD by Stella Gibbons
• AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER by Mario Vargas Llosa
• MANSFIELD PARK by Jane Austen
• THE ROSIE PROJECT by Graeme Simsion
• EQUAL RITES by Terry Pratchett
• THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt
• LEAVING BEFORE THE RAIN COMES by Alexandra Fuller
• FIRE IN THE BLOOD by Irene Nemirovsky
• NORTHANGER ABBEY by Jane Austen
• AN EXPERIMENT IN LOVE by Hilary Mantel
• JERUSALEM THE GOLDEN by Margaret Drabble
• SENSE AND SENSIBILITY by Jane Austen
• DIARY OF A PROVINCIAL LADY (and its sequels) by EM Delafield
• DANCING IN THE DARK by Karl Ove Knausgaard
• THE MOVIEGOER by Walker Percy
• A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA by Richard Hughes
• HOME by Marilynne Robinson
• UNDER THE VOLCANO by Malcolm Lowry
• PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen
• THE BLESSING by Nancy Mitford
• LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE by Nancy Mitford
• THE NAKED AND THE DEAD by Norman Mailer
• THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY by Michael Chabon
• THE PURSUIT OF LOVE by Nancy Mitford
• THE KNOWN WORLD by Edward P Jones
• WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys
• KITTY AND THE PRINCE by Ben Shephard
• LAKE WOBEGON DAYS by Garrison Keillor




THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P by Adelle Wadman

Just a re-read of this, because I had nothing else on my Kindle and because it's fantastic.

OSCAR AND LUCINDA by Peter Carey

This is extraordinarily well written novel about glass manufacture, religion, and Australia. Yet I fail to be able to drum up much enthusiasm for it. For a start, there are a lot of minor characters, who, while uniformly interesting, tend to slow down the narrative. And what narrative there is very much in a depressing direction: Oscar and Lucinda are both gambling addicts, and so from the beginning you struggle to see a happy ending. You feel sorry for them, but you also feel annoyed.

Also, they keep making terrible business decisions, such as investing huge sums in building a glass church for a tiny village in the Outback which is not served by any roads.

In summary, it’s a horrible, cruel book. The author spends 500 pages using all his great talent to get you to care about his large array of characters, and then has it all end badly for each of them, in an array of different ways. Rest assured, Oscar and Lucinda do not end up together. As an added bonus, Oscar even dies. I can only conclude that Carey was born in the First World. One shouldn’t stereotype, but you don’t lay out this kind of misery and despair in art unless your own reality is pretty freaking fantastic.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

A KISS BEFORE DYING by Ira Levin

Apparently I am becoming a fan of Levin’s. I read his STEPFORD WIVES and ROSEMARY’S BABY, and now A KISS BEFORE DYING. They’re fun books – tightly plotted and hard to predict. I notice now as I write this blog and look back over the titles that they also all deal very much with gender issues. They’re about women being tricked by men. A KISS BEFORE DYING was his first novel (a massive success when he was only twenty three) and is his least sophisticated iteration on the theme. It tells the story of a man who courts a wealthy young woman in the interests of securing her inheritance. She (spoiler) becomes pregnant and so will be disinherited. When she refuses an abortion he decides to kill her so as to escape marrying her. It all goes downhill from there. A clever, twisty little story. I wish I had written it at twenty three.

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St John Mandel

I do not recommend reading a book about a flu pandemic while on a long fligh next to a woman with the snuffles. It was overnight Dallas to London, and I felt ready for the end of days when we reached Heathrow. In the book the pandemic takes just a few days to spread around the world. It’s airborne and kills in under twenty four hours. People survive if they are able to stay away from others for the first weeks, as everyone who is not immune dies very quickly.

The story follows a group of people who were all loosely connected with a production of King Lear in Toronto on what is called ‘Day 1’ of the pandemic. Mostly the story follows one of the child actors in Lear, who in the post-apocalyptic world tours with a group of performers mostly showing Shakespeare and Mozart. I struggle to believe that in those harsh times there’d be much appetite for this. I’d think there’d be more money in horrific dog fighting or gladiatorial displays or something. But perhaps I am a terrible person with insufficient respect for the human spirit.

Another strand of the story follows a group who survive because their plane is forced to land at a remote airport, where they all go on to live for the next few decades, with romances blossoming between jaded business travellers and Lufthansa cabin attendants. It’s an interesting novel, and I recommend it, though the apocalyptic setting is more engaging than the various individual plots. It certainly made the flight seem short, though it also made the snuffler terrifying.




DEATH ON THE NILE by Agatha Christie

As I am on a Nile cruise I thought it was a good idea to read a novel about someone dying on a Nile cruise. DEATH ON THE NILE was written while Christie was on a cruise, and you can exactly see what inspired her. I even visited the hotel in which she stayed. I read quite a bit of Christie as a teenager, and still admire the clockwork neatness of her plotting. But for me there’s not much beyond that; but just that alone is a big achievement.

TROLLOPE by Victoria Glendinning

I’m not a great reader of biographies, but I do love Anthony Trollope, so was tempted by this charity shop find. It’s a biography almost as long as one of the subject’s novels, and it needs to be, because Trollope lived a long and full life. I love him for his extraordinary energy. He wrote his many novels while working full time at the post office, and is responsible for such fine novels as SMALL HOUSE AT ALLINGTON as well as the establishment of the postbox. It inspires me. He would wake up early in the morning and write for four hours before going to work a full day, which often included personally walking postal routes to see how they should work. He once said: “The whole success of my life I owe to early hours.” He is for me a prototypical Victorian, that couple of generations that made the industrial revolution happen and in whose long shadows we are all still standing.

Trollope’s family was among the gentility who lacked money, and his early life was fairly difficult. He was socially awkward, middling at school, and not his parents’ favourite. Interestingly, his life only really turned around in his twenties, when he got an opportunity to get away from his family and go to work in Ireland. From then on it was pretty much up, up, up. I was also interested to learn he travelled a great deal, going to America, Australia, and Africa. What a fabulous man. Pity about the horrible beard.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

TOBACCO ROAD by Eskine Caldwell

I am not sure if this book is a tragedy or a comedy. On the one hand it is a searing tale of the extremely poor in the South in the 1930s, on the other hand it is a hilarious tale of the extremely poor in the South in the 1930s.

Here, for example, is a man who has married a 13 year old girl because he finds her hair pretty. She refuses to speak to him.
Lov asked Pearl questions, he kicked her, he poured water over her, he threw rocks and sticks at her, and he did everything else he could think of that might make her talk to him. She cried a lot, especially when she was seriously hurt, but Lov did not consider that as conversation.

The book focuses on a single family, which is close to starving. An older preacher woman gets the 16 year old son to marry her by promising to spend all the money she has on a new car for him though this will leave them penniless. They marry and buy the car, which the teenager does not really know how to drive, and spend much of the book driving around hooting, eventually destroying the car. At the end they run over the starving old grandmother and don’t bother to check if she is alive or not. It was sort of hilarious. Now to google it and find out it is supposed to be comic or not.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

REQUIEM FOR A WREN by Nevil Shute

I loved Shute’s ON THE BEACH as a teenager, so was excited when I found this in a second hand bookstore. It has a great premise. A man arrives back at his parents’ home in Australia after fighting in the Second World War to find that their maid has just killed herself. He regards this as mostly inconvenient – until he finds out that this woman is in fact the former fiancĂ© of his dead brother, for whom he has been searching for years. Where is this going to go! Why was she there? Why did she kill herself?

The answers are not as interesting as the questions. After the war, the woman was overwhelmed with grief, and with guilt about her role in the war, and so wanders the world, vaguely suicidal, until she decides to go and visit her dead fiance’s family. For reasons I couldn’t follow, but seem to be mostly about embarrassment, she doesn’t introduce herself, but rather signs up to help them as a housemaid. British people are sometimes truly inscrutable. Then, when she learns that her fiance’s brother is coming back, who she knows will recognise her, she decides to kill herself rather than face a reveal she thinks will be traumatic.

I don’t know. It was hard to relate. Maybe it’s a profound story of PSTD and I’m just not following.

Monday, 14 December 2015

TRAVELS WITH CHARLIE by John Steinbeck

The title tells it all. Basically this old man drives around with his dog. Not much happens. Steinbeck has written some really great books, but this is not one of them. We are very much in late-life-crisis country, with Steinbeck banging on about what it means to be a man, and somewhat pointlessly embarking on a voyage of discovery in a homemade camper van.

He does not discover too much. He has some small talk with strangers, which he reports verbatim. His dog needs to pee a lot. He is deeply impressed by vending machines.
Suppose you want a soft drink; you pick your kind – Sugargrape or Cooly Cola – press a button, insert the coin, and stand back. A paper cup drops into place, the drink pours out and stops a quarter of an inch from the brim . . . . Coffee is even more interesting, for when the hot black fluid has ceased, a squirt of milk comes down and an envelope of sugar drops beside the cup.
It’s like going on holiday with your Grandpa. If your grandpa had written Of Mice And Men. Because some bits are quite well observed. In a cafĂ©:
The customers were folded over their coffee cups like ferns.
Or on turkeys:
To know them is not to admire them, for they are vain and hysterical. They gather in vulnerable groups and then panic at rumours. They are subject to all the sicknesses of other fowl, together with some they have invented. Turkeys seem to be manic-depressive types, gobbling with blushing wattles, spread tails, and scraping wings in amorous bravado at one moment and huddled in craven cowardice the next.
But that’s about it. There you go, you can skip it. I’ve read it for you and picked out the best bits.


Sunday, 13 December 2015

THE YACOUBIAN BUILDING by Alaa al Aswany

As I am in Egypt I am making an effort to read Egyptian books. Helpfully, the tour company gave a suggested reading list. Horrifyingly, not one of these was by an Egyptian. This is particularly appalling, as Egypt is one of the few African countries to have a Nobel Laureate in Literature – Naguib Mahfouz (along with Zimbabwe – thank you, Doris Lessing). I’ve read Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, so I decided to go with another Egyptian, Aswany, whose THE YACOUBIAN BUILDING was a huge best seller in the Arab world at the turn of this century.

The books centres on the inhabitants of a single building in Cairo, from the poor people who live in slum conditions on the roof to the somewhat wealthier people who live inside the building itself. I was described as Dickensian in scope, so I was all ready for a really good long read. In the end, it was hardly more than a tasty snack. A huge cast of characters was introduced, I was just getting interested in them – and then it was over. What there was I enjoyed – the hard working poor young man who becomes an extremist, the dissolute old man who surprises himself by falling in love, the businessman who gets in too deep with the military – but I wish there had been much much more.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

BEING MORTAL: ILLNESS, MEDICINE, AND WHAT MATTERS IN THE END by Atul Gawande

This is a great book about something we all have to face at some point: death. It’s written from a doctor’s perspective, which is interesting, because you would expect doctors to be experts on the subject. Gawande however makes it clear that they are not. Doctors are really focused on life – on sustaining it at all costs – and really have little training on what to do about death. It’s unfortunate then that death in our culture is now very much in their hands, as the end of lives are increasingly medicalised.

And the end of our lives are getting longer and longer, with us all facing decades of frailty. Incredibly, average life expectancy in the Roman Empire was just 28, and in the US in 1900 it was still under 50, and its only recently that the 80s have been reached, so really we are very new to all this. Right now our solution is: hospital. As recently as 1945, according to Gawande, most deaths in the US occurred at home, but now they mostly happen in hospital.

The book really made me think about what I hope will be my long old age. Currently many care homes ‘protect’ the elderly to the point that they rob them of all the things that make life worth living – they are not allowed to dance, to keep pets, sometimes even to walk. For the terminally ill, there is very little understanding of how to talk about the inevitable, with many patients not entering hospice when they probably should. Amazingly, studies are now showing that those entering hospice sooner actually live longer than those who are ‘treated,’ reporting greater levels of happiness – and – get this – their relatives reportingt a more manageable level of grief after they die.

I highly recommend this book. We’re all likely to live a very long time, which means we have a lot of years to be old and ill. As Philip Roth cheerfully put it: "Old age is not a battle. Old age is a massacre."

Thursday, 10 December 2015

WHEN THE DOVES DISAPPEARED by Sofi Oksanen

Here is a book about Estonia during the second world war. First question: where is Estonia? It’s one of these little countries, always about to be gobbled up by larger powers, and this is pretty much what their war was about. They support the Germans, because they don’t want to be subsumed by Russia, and it’s interesting to read for once a book in which the Germans are the heroes. It’s all extraordinarily Eastern European. Enjoy this:
Maybe life was so fragile and meaningless that there was no need to add to their troubles. There was headcheese to be made, lard to be rendered; there were intestines to be salted for next year’s sausage – so much work to do, all to maintain the fragile lives of others.
I love it! The despair, the disgusting food, it’s everything you want from that part of the world.

The story is about a family in which one cousin fights for Estonian independence (does not go well) while the other strategically flip-flops from Communism to Fascism, depending on who is winning (goes very well). It’s very well written, and very engaging, but left me with sort of a bad taste in my mouth, as the traitor/pragmatist succeeds at every turn, with the final wages of sin for him being a nice lifestyle (which in this context is access to restricted shops, where the mincemeat is not mixed with rat). I guess in fiction we expect the triumph of the underdog; I found it upsetting to see the underdog executed.

Oksanen is a gifted writer, though for me her style is sometimes overblown. Here is a good sample, which moves from the ridiculous to the sublime:
The stars sifted through the clouds into her eyes, and her eyes were like forest doves bathed in milk. Darkness covered my awkwardness; I didn’t open my mouth. Tender feelings didn’t fit the time. I put my hand on her neck and wrapped a curled wisp of her hair around my finger. Her neck was soft, like peacetime.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

A NOTABLE WOMAN: THE ROMANTIC JOURNALS OF JEAN LUCEY PRATT by Jean Lucey Pratt ed. Simon Garfield

These are the diaries of a woman from her adolescence to her old age. They are a record of her entire life, across 60 years. They are therefore almost impossible to review, being a comprehensive picture of a life as it was actually lived. I had a bit of a weep in Luxor airport after I’d finished all 700 pages. Not because she died in the end, obviously. This being real life and not fiction that was how it was always going to finish. It was also not really because of how she lived; she didn’t really achieve anything major. She was not heroic in the war. She always wanted to be a writer, but the one book published in her lifetime did not sell well and was remaindered. It’s the very ordinariness of her life that made this book so touching. At its heart was an extraordinary struggle to lead a life of meaning, which is at the heart I suspect of every life, however ordinary. We just don’t usually get a chance to get such a close up view of it.

The diaries start in 1925, when Jean is 15. She studies architecture and journalism in college, but has a small amount of inherited money, and so never really sets to any work with great seriousness. One of the fun aspects of the book is seeing how, as with everyone, Jean’s judgement of herself changes drastically day to day. Here she is:
For the sort of jobs I am after I lack, at the age of 33, experience.Oh God, those wasted years! If this is ever read by posterity, let posterity ponder on this: You cannot run away from life. If you try, life will only catch you in the end, and the longer you’ve been running the more it will hurt. Learn to be hurt as early as possible, welcome being hurt; face pain, humiliation and defeat in your teens; accept them, let them go through you, so that you cease to be afraid of them.
Then a day later she quotes from a letter from a friend: Lot of nonsense about your wasted years. No such thing if carefully analysed.
We can’t all be ready to make a spring off the board on leaving college. Think of all the advantages of the spirit you have had in the past years
.

It’s also enjoyable to be part of her private moments:
Alone again. Curtains drawn. Little cat out saying hullo to the new moon. Some woman drivelling on the radio.
Or the mix of her tiny life with the big world:
A light fall of snow and Japan’s declaration of war surprised us on Sunday night.

Jean never marries, and what she sees as a failure worries her very much for a large part of her life, though she is aware that she was of a generation where two world wars left too few husbands to go round. Weirdly it is only when the money runs out that she really starts to find contentment. She is forced to find an income, and so opens a book store. This draws her into the life of the community, and the happiest portion of her life is that after fifty. She gives up the idea of writing, she realises how much she likes to live alone, she develops a great love for her cats and for her garden – here she is on her gardening:
This sort of thing is what delights me and make me feel fulfilled – I am ‘creating’. A slow developer, but now at last coming into full flower. And to discover, you silly young idiots, that sex does not matter!! Shut up, you argumentative neurotic lot. One can live a full and joyful life without it and still stay reasonably unshrivelled and unembittered. Believe me!
I really recommend these diaries. They powerfully reminded me of that Alan Bennett quote, which is to the effect that when we read we feel a hand reaching out across history to touch our own; we read to know we are not alone.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

BOOK OF MEMORY by Petina Gappah

If you are Zimbabwean it is really pretty rare to read a book, or see a film, that is of your experience. I’m quite jealous really of Americans, and Indians, and Nigerians, with their Holly, and Bolly, and Nollywoods.

So I particularly enjoyed this book, which is not just a story of Zimbabwe, but a story of my Zimbabwe; it’s the the story of a girl who went to my high school, Harare’s Donimican Convent, and ended up in Chikarubi, Harare’s largest prison. Luckily I can only relate to the first part of the sentence. But if I could not relate to any of it, I would still have enjoyed the book, for it is a complex and interesting work.
Memory is an albino woman who at nine years old leaves her poor black family to live with a wealthy white man. Many years later she is falsely convicted of his murder, and ends up in jail. The book is her account of her life, in which we learn that all is not what it seems, both about her old family and her new father. More than the plot, I enjoyed the twisty, elaborate dialogue, which is specially Zimbabwean. I’ll quote at length – here’s a woman telling how she came to be in Chikarubi:
I was just coming from the shops, ndazvitengera zvangu yekera yangu, ndazvitengera drink yangu, it was the first time that I had seen Cherry Plum in ages, from the time I was a girl I have always liked it even though it makes your tongue purple, so I bought some and I was so happy, and I bought it with my own money, and I was drinking it and laughing with my friend Shupi who lives in Jerusalem when this woman called Rosewinter who lives in Canaan walked past us, and I know her because she tried to take my boyfriend, he used to live close by Shupi in Jerusalem, in fact that is how we met until his landlord kicked him out for not paying rent on time, but I can’t really say that he was my proper boyfriend as such because he was married even though his wife lived at their village. So as she passed us she was talking and I heard her say to her friend, ndiye uya anoroya, and I said what did you say, and she said, ehe, I said you are a witch who eats people, what are you going to do about it, you witch? And I said, what, what do you mean I am a witch, and I said to myself, no, I cannot allow this, how can I allow this Rosewinter person, mumwewo mukadzi zvake akabarwa seni, to call me a witch while I just stand here drinking Cherry Plum like nothing is happening, and she said again, you are a witch, and then I took my bottle even though it still had some drink in it and I took it and I hit her with it and she screamed maiwe, the witch is killing me, and that made me even angrier so I hit her again and the bottle broke on her head; you have never seen anything like it because the bottle broke and there was this blood now mixed with the Cherry Plum and I turned to Shupi for help but she and the other woman’s friend were busy fighting, but when the police came, they both of them managed to run away even though Shupi left her new wig behind, it was a boy-cut style, which was a pity because kanga kakmufita zvisingaiti kawig kacho, and this woman was now shouting my head, my head, my head, kani my head, like I had killed her.
Now I’m homesick.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

DON’T TELL ALFRED by Nancy Mitford

This book is a reminder to me not to get sour in my old age. The story has nothing to do with old age, but it’s still the lesson I take: it’s more about the author than it is about her book. I expected to enjoy this novel, as it’s the third in a trilogy, and I have read and re-read the first two THE PURSUIT OF LOVE and LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE may times. They’re fatnastic, fun, clever books, great for reading when you can’t sleep, and I re-open them often.

I should have been wary of the fact that DON’T TELL ALFRED is not typically sold with the other two. The publishers clearly know that something’s not quite right. In this book the satire has become cruel, and the laughter unkind. The first books are set in the upper class English world Mitford grew up in, in 1920s Britain and are a charming account of a world that’s long gone. This latter book, written decades after the first two, is set in the 1960s, and Mitford is clearly not able to accept what she’s lost. She talks a great deal about the modern world, from eastern religion to rock 'n' roll, and comes across as nothing so much as bitter. Here she is on her son speaking: "Basil went on in this curious idiom, which consisted in superimposing, whenever he remembered to do so, cockney or American slang on the ordinary speech of an educated person."

There’s lots of other humourless stuff like this, on Buddhism being obviously ‘bunkum’, and so on. All a bit much from a woman who accepted as a charming eccentricity her uncle’s love of the ‘child hunt’ (that is: when the foxes were not available for hunting, he’d use her and her cousins as prey, and chase them across the fields with dogs). Sorry Ms Mitford. It’s not such a big deal after all; there’s still the other two, and they’re fantastic, some of my favourite night time companions.

A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD by Anne Tyler

I’d never heard of Anne Tyler before, which surprised me, as she’s a prolific and well regarded author, and a Pulitzer prize winner. This novel tells the story of a long marriage, centred around a house that was built by the husband’s father.
I typically struggle with these very domestic stories, but this is as good an example as any, with believable characters and well observed moments. Here we are when they are young, with the husband-to-be watching his sister in irritation: “ (She) would be eagerly nodding her head in her demure new pillbox hat, giving a liquid laugh that any brother would know to be false”
And here’s a description of his family; “Their leanness was the rawboned kind, not the lithe elastic slenderness of people in magazine ads, and something a little too sharp in their faces suggested that while they themselves were eating just fine, perhaps their forefathers had not.”
For me in the end while I enjoyed the novel I cannot say it moved me. After watching the couple’s whole lives unfold I was left a little – blah. And yet still I can only admire Ms Tyler’s artistry. Here we are, at the end, with the husband in a car. The wife is dead, so the husband is moving into a care home, and his grandchildren have just had their last Haloween at the house. The decorations are not yet down: “Look past him out the rain-spattered window. Focus purely on the scenery, which had changed to open countryside now, leaving behind the blighted row houses, leaving behind the station under its weight of roiling dark clouds, and the empty city streets farther north with the trees turing inside out in the wind, and the house on Bouton Road where the filmy-skirted ghosts frolicked and danced on the porch with nobody left to watch”
See what she did there? It’s a bit barf inducing but I admire it.

Friday, 27 November 2015

YEAR OF WONDERS by Geraldine Brooks

This book is based on the true story of a tiny Derbyshire village that was stricken with the plague. Rather than flee, the villagers decided to quarantine themselves, to avoid infecting neighbouring communities. They succeeded in saving their neighbours, but about two-thirds of the village died. In short, it's kind of an apocalypse novel. And I love a good apocalypse novel. It's chock full of terrible moral questions, which is of course the best part of the apocalypse (at least in fiction. In real life, the best bit will be still being alive).

Early on the villagers make the brilliant plan of killing the only people in the village with any kind of medical knowledge - the female herabists (aka, witches). You then begin to feel really grateful for modern medicine, as the villagers try and cure themselves by randomly eating various bits of leaves and bushes in the hopes that something will work. Big props to the Enlightenment, you guys. And big props also to Fleming, for the invention of antibiotics, which is still the only cure for the plague.

I enjoyed this book very much. However I struggled as I did with Brooks' MARCH that it works more as an interesting collation of research than exactly as a novel. There's a also a bit of challenge in how contemporary the characters feel. They are all busy enjoying roses and whatever, but I am quite sure that in reality the inner life of people of the seventeenth century was more along the lines of "it mislikes me not when the devil does be upon the bacon" or whatever: inscrutable historical weirdness.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE by Charles Yu

This book is about a time travel machine repair man. I thought for sure I would like it. But I should have been warned by the fact that the protagonist's name is Charles Yu, the same as the author's. This kind of thing is always a RED ALERT that you are going to have a clever-clever novel. And indeed it is CLEVER-CLEVER. There is all sorts of pretty predictable stuff about selfhood and blah blah can I read a book before I have written it and blah blah. I had to give up part way through.

FARENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury

This book feels kind of imitative. Perhaps this is because it sparked a lot of imitators, and I read these imitators before the original. It tells of a dystopian future society where the populace is kept entranced by television (all four walls of the rooms), by fast cars, etc. Books and thought are basically planned, and the public don't feel their loss very much. Cue joke about today.

Ray Bradbury had a long life, and in the Forward he reflects on the book FIFTY YEARS after he wrote it. Apparently he finished it off in nine days in some kind of typewriter room in the local YMCA. Imagine living so long that you wrote a major book half a century ago? It gives me hope I've still got time. For what, I'm not quite sure.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA by Arthur Golden

I'm afraid I couldn't get past the first few chapters. I don't know why people love this book so much. It just screamed: THE AUTHOR THINKS THIS IS SO EXOTIC. I hate that. He's just loving that it's JAPAN, and people are POOR, and oh god best of all they are SEX WORKERS WHO WEAR FACE PAINT. Snore.

Arthur Golden is a white American man writing about an Asian woman, so there will be a long line of people queuing up to complain that he's a cultural imperialist suppressing the voice of the Other, and etc etc. I'm tempted to Google it right now just to see how many million hits I get on the novel title + 'orientalist'. I am not one of these people. I think it's great when writers stretch beyond their own tiny experience to write the world; but good god you've got to do it well - and MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA: well, it's not so good. Not in my experience anyway, but then it did spend two years on the New York Times bestseller list, so what do I know. (Actually I just googled to find out how long it was on the list, and guess what: the author is part of the family that owns the New York Times. No wonder he finds it deeply exotic that someone might be poor).

Saturday, 31 October 2015

THE LONEY by Andrew Michael Hurley

This is a book with a great set-up, but poor pay-off. Much like the average person's life, I guess.

It tells the story of a family's annual religious pilgrimage to the English coast, to a place called the Loney.
It was our week of penitence and prayer in which we would make our confessions, visit St Anne's shrine, and look for God in the emerging springtime, that, when it came, was hardly a spring at all; nothing so vibrant and effusive. It was more the soggy afterbirth of winter. Dull and featureless it may have looked, but the Loney was a dangerous place. A wild and useless length of English coastline. A dead mouth of a bay that filled and emptied and made Coldbarrow . . . into an island. The tides could come in quicker than a horse could run and every year a few people drowned. . . Opportunist cocklepickers, ignorant of what they were dealing with, drove their trucks onto the sands at low tide and washed up weeks later with green faces and skin like lint

It's all so very promising! The protagonist's brother has some kind of developmental disorder, so he cannot speak, and their mother is convinced that they can pray him well. In the best tradition of this kind of novel they run into local rural people who are obviously involved in creepy rural stuff: sheep's hearts turn up in cow's skulls, pregnant teenage girls disappear, community theatre is obviously a satanic ritual, and etc. Why are rural people always doing this kind of thing? Probably they are bored because internet speeds are too slow for youtube.

Anyway, eventually the brother is healed after the locals do something not too fantastic with a baby. Somehow this manages to be anti-climactic.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir

This book which is now a bestseller and – apogee of literary achievement – a movie, began life as a self-published pdf. I read a very charming interview with its author who explained that he had an irrational fear that the whole thing was set up, some kind of big joke, because the path from pdf to blockbuster seemed so unlikely.

The book tells the story of an astronaut who is left behind on Mars and has to survive for almost a year on his own. The interest of the story is not at all psychological – the astronaut remains implausibly chipper throughout – but more in the way he – as he puts it – ‘sciences the shit’ out of his situation. He comes up with all kinds of inventive solutions to apparently impossible problems – growing food, getting water, etc – which are very interesting to read about. It made me wish I’d studied science in school, and I hope it does that too for the kids still in school who see the movie. Somewhat unintentionally, I‘ve also seen the movie, and it’s better than the book – shorter, more psychologically believable, with added bonus of Matt Damon being mostly bare chested.

A SUNDAY AT THE POOL IN KIGALI BY Gil Courtemanche

This is certainly the most highly sexed account of the Rwandan genocide I've ever read. It tells the story of an older Canadian journalist who is in Rwanda over the period of the genocide, living in the famous 'Hotel Rwanda'. He begins a relationship with a much younger waitress, and we learn almost as much about the curve of her butt and the perkiness of her breasts as we do about the genocidal violence. It's mid-life crisis meets mass murder. In a deeply unlikely plot twist, he marries her. In a more likely plot twist, despite her being Tutsi, he refuses to leave the country with her because 'he likes Rwanda.' He likes it less later on when the poor woman is abducted and gang raped.

The book is excellent as an account of the real feel of this period, as the author was there for much of the time. It reminded me once again how horrifyingly well planned the genocide was, and how many countries and international bodies were fully aware of what was going to happen. I do think though that it's a little odd, how much energy is given to condemning the UN in Rwanda. Surely, condemnation should be primarily for those who committed the crime. This is clearly how it operates with the Nazis and the Holocaust; so I'm not clear why it doesn't work that way in Rwanda. I'm going to go ahead and say it's kind of racist, as if the press feels that Rwandas are in some mysterious way not capable of planning and executing their own genocide, just as well as the Germans.

The journalist thinks the waitress is dead after the gang rape, but then later finds out she is alive. Apparently this was not uncommon in the genocide, as while men were dispatched quickly, women were often raped and tortured and left to die slowly (e.g., as in her case, having yours breasts hacked off). He finds the waitress in a market, but she says he should leave her as she is 'no longer a woman'. He does so immediately. Apparently we are supposed to think this is romantic? I just find it fairly believable. Always nice to have that Canadian passport when the breasts are no longer perky, or indeed existent.


Sunday, 18 October 2015

MARCH by Geraldine Brooks

In my endless quest for something to read I have taken to studying past winners of literary prizes. I thought of the Pulitzer recently and was disappointed to learn that I have in fact already read virtually all the winners of the last two decades. MARCH was the exception.

Those familiar with LM Alcott’s LITTLE WOMEN will recall the book tells the story of a mother and her four daughters over the course of a year while the father is away, serving the Union in the Civil War. This is the story of the father’s year. It’s a fiction based on the real experiences of LM Alcott’s own father.
Alcott in real life was an impressively free thinker. Born to barely literate farmers, he entirely self-created a very unusual vision for his life: His radicalism took many forms.
“Vegetarian from childhood, he founded a commune, Fruitlands, so extreme in its Utopianism that members neither wore wool nor used aminal manures, as both were considered property of the beasts from which they came. One reason the venture failed in its first winter was that when canker worms got into the apple crop, the nonviolent Fruitlanders refused to take measures to kill them.”

He was not willing to fight in the war, though many pacifists put aside their ideals in order to join what they saw as a fight against slavery. He therefore became a non-denominational chaplain, before such a concept existed, much to the confusion of the men he sought to help. Cue horrifying if familiar scenes of civil war butchery. Later, he got involved in an aspect of the war I’d never heard about – that is, trying to rescue that year’s cotton crop. As the Union troops advanced, more and more cotton fields came behind their lines. The owners had obviously fled, leaving behind the now freed slaves. Now the Union had a problem – how to produce cotton, which they needed, and how to introduce previously enslaved people into the formal economy. They ended up finding Northern men with capital, but without farming experience, to take over leases on the farms and try to get the crops out. It was as you can imagine a difficult project. In March’s case, it was made worse by the fact that some former slaves had chosen to join the confederates, and they burned down the cotton crop, and re-captured the slaves, right before the harvest.

I can’t say I cared very much about the characters in this novel, or about the plot, but the setting was extremely interesting. I was particularly fascinated by the attempt to move slaves into employees, and by how very fragile that distinction can be.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

ALL MY PUNY SORROWS by Miriam Toews

This novel tells the story of a woman whose father and then sister commit suicide. It is apparently somewhat autobiographical, as the same thing happened to the author. It is a quite horrifying read, sort of car crash literature, a horrible way to see from a distance what it looks like when the worst happens.
The father kills himself quite quickly and unexpectedly, while the sister makes many attempts and is frequently stopped. She ends up in hospital, begging her family to let her die. They refuse. She eventually seems well enough to be allowed home, where she immediately succeeds in killing herself at last. I have heard that one of the commonest responses to suicide is anger, and I can absolutely see why that would be so. I felt really furious with the sister by the end of the book. Quite how you could force your family through that kind of grief, I can’t understand. But then I suppose I’ve also never considered suicide, so no doubt there are whole swathes of human experience outside my knowledge. Thank goodness.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

REUNION by Fred Uhlman

REUNION tells the story of a two boys in high school who become friends. It’s Germany in the 1930s, and one of the boys is Jewish, so we’re clear from the beginning that it’s not going to end well. This is a near perfect little novella, that had me blubbing at the dinner table at the end of its 90 pages.
The Jewish boy had never thought of his ethnicity as being any more important than his hair colour, and had rarely faced any issues with racism. The story shows how over the course of two years this changes, till he is being beaten up by his classmates, lectured in history class about ‘dark forces’ set on destroying Germany, and most painfully of all, abandoned by his friend.
His parents have been in Germany for many generations, and cannot quite believe which way things are going, particularly as his father is a veteran of WWI, a war in which 12,000 Jews died for Germany. The parents refuse to leave the country, but send their son to America. After he leaves, a Nazi comes to stand in front of the parents’ house, holding a sign that says: "Germans beware. Avoid all Jews. Whoever has anything to do with a Jew is defiled." Then:
My father put on his officer’s uniform together with his decorations, including the Iron Cross, First Class and took up his stand beside the Nazi. The Nazi got more and more embarrassed, and gradually quite a crowd collected. At first they stood in silence, but as their numbers increased there were mutterings which finally broke into aggressive jeers. But it was at the Nazi that their hostility was aimed and it was the Nazi who, before long, packed up and made off. He didn’t come back nor was he replaced. A few days later, when my mother was asleep, my father turned on the gas; and so they died. Since their death I have, as far as possible, avoided meeting Germans and haven’t opened a single German book, not even Holderlin. I have tried to forget.
Leaving aside the fact that wives should probably be consulted before murder-suicides, this is a truly terrible and wonderful story. It’s written with total simplicity, the simplicity of really great art, that looks so easy but is in fact so difficult. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

THE ROYAL WE by Jessica Morgan and Heather Cocks

I do not usually read summer pulp, but never let it be said that I am a literary snob: observe me reading summer pulp. I even read this on the beach, the correct place to read a book that proudly/shamefully advertises itself as a beach read. I chose this book because I have been reading Jessica and Heather’s blog gofugyourself.com for a long time, and because it was 99p on Amazon.
Gofugyourself.com is fantastic blog, allegedly about fashion but mostly about wasting time, with a huge readership. Heather and Jessica began it as a joke in the early days of blogs and it is now their full fledged career, and I became a reader somewhere towards the beginning. It never ceases to amaze me how similar the two womens’ voices are, so you can never pick apart who has written what, and I was curious to see how this would work in a book.
THE ROYAL WE is an imagining of the Prince William and Kate Middleton story, somewhat fictionalised, with a young American inserted in the Kate Middleton role. It’s a fairly fun read, with a good attempt at a believable array of characters, and a central protagonist you care about. We run into trouble when they try and write about feelings, e.g.,: “(he). . . traced my jaw, the line of my neck, my arm, the whole time looking at me with a blazing, intimate intensity” but other than that I enjoyed it. I was sorry when it was finished to close my sandy Kindle, and what more really can you ask than that?

Friday, 11 September 2015

THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT by Elena Ferrante

This is a book about the dangers of putting all your eggs in one basket, especially if that basket is your husband’s. The main character here, Olga, has been married fifteen years and has two small children. One day after lunch her husband tells her suddenly that he is leaving her. Thus begins a massive and not very proudly feminist meltdown.

The husband doesn’t come back for thirty four days, and Olga starts to come apart. She has moved many times for her husband’s job, so has few friends nearby, and gave up employment at his request. She’s therefore left with not too much to fall back on, and she falls hard. She does some ordinary post break-up things (e.g., propositioning the neighbour for anal sex), and then moves on to the less ordinary. On one terrible day she seems to be losing her sanity, almost drowning her little girl while trying to wash her and unable to focus long enough to phone a doctor even though the little boy appears dangerously ill. It’s all told from her perspective, as she tries to hold on to her mind, and it’s very frightening. We’re definitely on the edge of Medea territory:
The children hadn’t eaten anything. I myself still had to have breakfast, wash. The hours were passing. I had to separate the dark clothes from the white. I had no more clean underwear. The vomit-stained sheets. Run the vaccuum. Housecleaning.
Pretty often I hate this kind of thing – insanity being as difficult to write about as dreams are – but the extraordinary Ferrante of MY BRILLIANT FRIEND manages it.

Olga comes through it in the end, more or less unscarred, particularly after she finds out that her husband has left her for a twenty year old he used to coach when she was a teenager. This is hardly the calibre of man for whom its worth losing a mind.

The only false note, for me, was the resolution, where Olga ends up with the neighbour she previously propositioned. I’m not sure a new man is a good cure for having been too hung up on the old one – but there it is. At least she’s not trying to drown the children any more.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

THE DISCOMFORT ZONE by Jonathan Franzen

I’ve been thinking about Franzen of late because his new novel PURITY has just been released. I don’t think I’ll be reading it till I’ve seen a few reviews, as it is the dreaded book-after-the-successful-book, and I suspect a wobble. You’d have to be a titan to not overthink and overwrite after the massive hit that was FREEDOM. So I ended up reading this instead, largely because it was only 99p.
It’s a memoir of Franzen’s early life, and is often very amusing. Here he is on his efforts to sell his mother’s house after her death:
I felt some additional pressure to help my brother Tom, the executor of the estate, to finish his work quickly. I felt a different kind of pressure from my other brother, Bob, who had urged me to remember that we were talking about real money. (“People knock $782,000 down to $770,000 when they’re negotiating, they think it’s basically the same number,” he told me. “Well, no, in fact it’s twelve thousand dollars less. I don’t know about you, but I can think of a lot of things I’d rather do with twelve thousand dollars than give it to the stranger who's buying my house.”) But the really serious pressure came from my mother, who, before she died, had made it clear that there was no better way to honor her memory and validate the last decades of her life than to sell the house for a shocking amount of money.
Or here he is on his adolescence: “I spent morbid, delicious amount of time by myself, driven by the sort of hormonal instinct that I imagine leads cats to eat grass.”
Hilarious. And yet I can’t say that overall I admired it. There’s some truly leaden writing, including a long section on Charles Schultz, for no real reason, and some truly horrifying dull discussions of what he thought about German literature during his undergraduate degree. Sample “ . . as Goethe put it, in his gendered language . . “
I do wonder a bit if I’m ruined for this kind of memoir by Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose MY STRUGGLE has comprehensively closed off the area of late twentieth century male memoir, making everyone else who attempts it seem a rather sad shadow of that wonderful project.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

THE FISHERMEN by Chigozi Obioma

Watch out literature! The Africans are coming. Chigozi Obioma’s THE FISHERMEN is nominated for the Booker, and is a fine and frightening novel about the power of suggestion.

It tells the story of four brothers living in a high density area of a small town in Nigeria. Though it is expressly forbidden by their parents, they take to go fishing in the local river, and on one of their trips there the local madman tells the oldest son that he will be killed by one of his brothers. The idea slowly grows in his mind, and he begins to be angry with his brothers for their future treachery. Eventually a fight goes too far, and SPOILER ALERT the two youngest brothers find him dead in the kitchen apparently killed by the next oldest brother. This brother cannot be found for days, though eventually the taste of the well water reveals where he has ended his own life.

The two youngest brothers then hatch a plan to kill the madman they view as the source of all their troubles, and the novel proceeds down an ever darker pathway.

It’s a compelling read, with the horrible sense of doom of a Greek tragedy wrapped up in a very believable version of a corner of contemporary Nigeria. The writing itself is also unique, sounding as if it might be written by someone who does not have English as quite his first language, and all the more interesting for that. I’ll leave you with his description of the madman, who is the beginning and end of all their troubles:
I observed that he carried on his body a variety of odours, the most noticeable of which was a faecal smell that wafted at me like a drone of flies when I drew closer to him. This smell, I thought, might have been a result of his going for so long without cleaning his anus after excretion. He reeks of sweat accumulated inside the dense growth of hair around his pubic regions and armpits. He smelt of rotten food, and unhealed wounds and pus, and of bodily fluids and waste. He was redolent of rusting metals, putrefying matter, old clothes, distched underwear he sometimes worse. He smelt, too, of leaves, creepers, decaying mangoes by the Omi-Ala, the sane of the riverbank, and even of the water itself. . . But these were not all; he smelt of immaterial things. He smelt of the broken lives of others, and of the stillness in their souls. He smelt of unknown things, of strange elements, and of fearsome and forgotten things.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

MY BRILLIANT FRIEND, and THE STORY OF A NEW NAME and THOSE WHO LEAVE AND THOSE WHO STAY by Elena Ferrante

This is an absolutely fantastic series of three novels following a pair of female friends from their childhood in Naples through to their thirties. They grow up poor, in the 30s in Naples, and their lives take very different paths: one leaves school at 14, marries early, and divorces straight away; the other stays in school and becomes an author. Interestingly though it is the former that is the brilliant one, and her more successful friend feels permanently under her shadow.

It's hard to say what makes these novels so compelling. I didn't note down any particularly clever quotes, I can't remember any brilliant concepts; and yet I inhaled these books in a single week. They're so real that I feel as if I have friends from Naples; as if I can talk knowledgably about gender in pre-war Italy. There's one more book to complete the series, and I can't wait.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

THE END OF THE STORY by Lydia Davis

This book sounded like it might be good. First published in the 90s, it has recently been re-published, and re-publishing always suggests good things. I hesitated, however, and I should have hesitated some more. The summary told me that there was an unnamed narrator - BEE BAH BEE BAH - warning sign! Another major warning sign: It's a novel about someone (unnamed) try to write a novel BEE BAH BEE BAH! The novel is about the end of her last relationship, which was, in the way of all tortured modern novels, naturally tortured.

I can't quite summarise quite everything that annoyed me about this book, but in brief:
a) Narrator unnamed
b) Feelings about last boyfriend complex. So complex (ie. negative) are her feelings that after a while you wonder why she's bothering to write a novel about him
c) Writing simple. I didn't think this was possible, but apparently you can strip your writing down so far that all that it becomes irritating

Sorry Ms Davis; just not my sort of book.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

WESTWOOD by Stella Gibbons

Stella Gibbons wrote some twenty novels, but is famous for only one: COLD COMFORT FARM. It a fantastic, hilarious little novel, about finding a peaceable way to live in a complicated world, and I had high hopes for WESTWOOD. WESTWOOD it turns out is a complicated novel about a complicated world, and while I did not really enjoy it while I was reading it, I'm glad in retrospect that I did.

The novel is set in London at the tail end of the second world war, and captures the feel of the city at that time quite remarkably:
The fire-fighting people had made deep pools with walls round them in many of the streets. and here, in the heart of London, ducks came to live on these lakes that reflected the tall yellow ruins and the blue sky. Pink willow-herb grew over the white uneven ground where houses had stood, and there were acres of ground covered with deserted, shattered houses whose windows were filled torn black paper. . . And the country was beginning to run back to London; back into those grimy villages linked by featureless road from which it had never quite vanished, and which make up the largest city in the world. Weeds grey in the City itself; a hawk was seen hovering over the ruins of the Temple, and foxes raided the chicken roosts in the gardens of houses near Hampstead Heath.

The central character is Margaret, a young teacher, and the story is largely about her obsession with the home and family of a famous playwright, Mr Challis, who happens to live near her in Hampstead. On the one hand, this obsession is about a hankering for beauty/meaning/etc; on the other, to a modern reader in any case, it appears to be a weird fascination with the upper classes. Margaret attempts to insert herself into their lives by 'helping' the nanny with the children - basically becoming an unpaid nanny herself - which everyone seems to view as extremely normal. She is 'allowed' to have tea with the servant as a great favour, while doing lots of manual labour for free; and she is happy about it. Here she is with the playwright:
"Please forgive me for saying it, but I do want you to know that this is the greatest moment of my life."
"Thank you, my child," replied Mr Challis, promptly and with grace.

Mr Challis meanwhile is secretly trying to have an affair with Margaret's very pretty friend Hilda, who he met during a blackout. Hilda however is not interested:
Unlike the working-girl of fifty years ago, whose desire for luxury and comfort was often the cause of her downfall, Hilda was not tempted by luxury. She had as part of her everyday life the cosmetics, clothes and amusements which fifty years ago had been reserved for ladies or unfortunates, and to which poor chaste girls could never hope to aspire to . . .
See what I mean about this being a difficult book for a modern reader?

In an odd twist, Margaret starts looking after the developmentally disabled child of her father's colleague, and for a while it looks like the novel might resolve into a traditional romance; but this ends in a doorstep kiss, never repeated. Eventually Margaret discovers Mr Challis' plans for Hilda, which ends her desire for him, but does not stop her desire for some larger and more beautiful life; and that's where we leave her: still as lost as she was at the beginning, still yearning, though she's not sure for what. So it's a very strange book over all, hard to categorise; apparently at first a romance, or coming of age story, but in the end something larger and much more complex.

Friday, 17 July 2015

AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER by Mario Vargas Llosa

I've read one other book by Vargas Llosa, the wonderful terrifying THE FEAST OF THE GOAT, which I bought because it was the only English language book on sale in Acapulco airport. I then read in one stint over a twelve hour bus ride through Mexico. A book that frightening should not be read on your own, and certainly not without any breaks. It's about the Dominican Republic, making it my second favourite book about a country I can't even find on a map. (Favourite: THE BRIEF AND WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO).

THE FEAST OF THE GOAT has that great essential of a good novel: a plot. AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER, unfortunately, does not. It alternates, chapter by chapter, between a quite acceptable premise - 18 year old man falls in love with his much older aunt - with a selection of short stories which are unrelated and annoyingly unfinished. Vargas Llosa is so talented that unwillingly I kept getting interested in the short stories, even though I knew they would not end. I think it's all just showing off. What's he trying to say? Surprise surprise, life lacks narrative coherence? WE KNOW THAT. That's why we read novels.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

MANSFIELD PARK by Jane Austen

MANSFIELD PARK was one of my A-level set books, and being an anxious student, I probably read it nine or ten times over the period of that course. Once I'd written the exam, just seeing the Penguin cover was enough to make me nauseous. I therefore haven't opened it since I skimmed it on that exam day, which, horrifyingly, is now almost twenty years ago, though I can still easily call up that exam room smell as if I was there last week.

MANSFIELD PARK has always been my least favourite Austen, largely because it contains my least favourite Austen heroine, Fanny, who is a total drip. This is not helped by the fact that Austen likes to refer to her as "my dear Fanny" - actually wait maybe that does help a bit. Books do tend to change over the years, so I was surprised to find that this one was actually much as I remembered it - Fanny's still a drip, I'm afraid. The only thing which struck me anew on this reading was how very moral a story it is. It's very much about the value of stillness, and stern principle, and about how seductive and charming and finally dangerous is the reverse. I don't know why this didn't strike me as a teenager? Perhaps I was more convinced then of the value of principle, and so it struck me as simply true, rather than as a moral position. But it's very clear. Here's Austen's summary, near the end: "Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly at fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest." Jeez.

Let's be clear here people. I say it's my least favourite Austen. That's still puts it among the best books ever written.

THE ROSIE PROJECT by Graeme Simsion

This book proves that originality is not needed for success. It's a very basic concept of opposites attracting: socially awkward boy meets socially able girl. Various misunderstanding accrue, they get together in the end.

For all that it's charming.

EQUAL RITES by Terry Pratchett

It seems I can't turn my back on a book for even a decade or so without it changing. Who is rewriting these things in my absence? SENSE AND SENSIBILITY: When did that become such a morality tale? MIDDLEMARCH: what's this new plot? EQUAL RITES: Well, we won't bother with the plot, because Pratchett is never about the plot; but sadly, so sadly, it's not as funny as I remember. I loved Terry Pratchett as a teenager, and it's sad to see that he or I have changed. It almost makes me scared to go back to other much loved books; I think I'd rather have my memory of the book I loved, rather than the book itself.

THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt

Well here's a book I gobbled up over a couple of nights. It's that very unusual thing, a smart and worthwhile book that's also a serious page turner. Here's how it begins: 'Does such a thing as 'the fatal flaw,' that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn't. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs."

I mean a longing for sex, yes. Money, yes. Power, definitely. But the picturesque? And yet that's what this story is about. The plot may be summarized as: young man becomes overly involved with his classics class.

The young man in question is a freshman in college when he gains admission to a tight little clique focused on the Ancient Greeks, and over time we learn that they harbour a big secret. They have been trying to live the life of the Ancient Greeks, up to and including attempting to meet with Dionysus in the woods of Vermont, and as part of this bizarre project have unintentionally killed a farmer. One member of the group, Bunny, a somewhat unstable young man, begins to suggest he is going to tell people about the murder. The group try and placate him by pandering to all of his whims, but slowly they realise that they are going to need to find a more permanent solution. So this time it's an intentional killing - but it doesn't end their problems, because now they all begin to fear that the others will tell. I won't give away what goes on after that, except to say that the book carries on to explore what it would mean if we really tried to live the life of the Ancient Greeks - sibling sex and all.

The key lesson I learned is: always commit your murders on your own.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

LEAVING BEFORE THE RAIN COMES by Alexandra Fuller

I've read all Fuller's books of memoir about her life in southern Africa. This sounds like an endorsement. It is, and it isn't. They're reasonably good books, but I think I've read them not so much for their quality as for their rarity. If you are American, or British, or Indian, or from any other large group, there are many novels about your experience. If you are Zimbabwean, not so much. The only white Zimbabwean I've ever seen portrayed on screen for example is Leonardo DiCaprio, doing a horrible South African accent.

There's much in Fuller's life that I can identify with, from the dirty to the malaria:
the Fullers . . drank whatever they could find, lukewarm if need be, and had no compunction about using ice made from unboiled water. 'A few germs never hurt anyone,' Dad always said. And if a bout of diarrhea ensued, it simply proved his point. 'See? Keeps you from getting all blocked up.
and
Like most drinking families, we usually aired our feelings late at night.
But I struggle with some of it; the Fullers are clearly somewhat new arrivals in Africa, so there is a sense of foreignness that I struggle to understand: (We) were alone in the house. Although truthfully we were alone only in the ways Westerners speak of being alone in Africa, as if the few hundred locals by whom they are almost always surrounded are part of the landscape, instead of part of humanity"

This novel is the story of the author's divorce. She married young, to an American named Charlie. As with many Africans, she imagined an American could give her stability.
Charlie was a gallant one-man intervention wanting to save us from our recklessness, quietly stepping in whenever he thought we were drinking excessively, ruining our health with cigarettes, or courting intestinal disaster with undercooked chicken. This made the Fullers howl with laughter and did nothing to make them behave differently.

They began their lives in rural Zambia, and unsurprisingly being twenty two and living in a remote location with a small screaming baby did make make for immediate bliss. They therefore moved to America, where they had two more children in short order. They have financial troubles, and their marriage starts to unravel. It's very sad. It's also somewhat annoying. She claims repeatedly that she 'can't understand the accounts' which is an frustratingly female way of dodging responsibility. The financial trouble seems all very American - the poverty of having too much. As she puts it:
True, we had a house, a cabin, some investments, but it turned out we didn't own any of the roofs over our heads, the bank did. We had three horses on some pasture in Idaho, those were ours . . .
Two residences and three horses and you wonder why you're in debt?

Anyway, this is a sweet and touching novel. I recommend it.



FIRE IN THE BLOOD

Irene Nemirovsky is famous for SUITE FRANCAISE, a novel about the German invasion of France, which she wrote during the German invasion of France. It's a fantastic novel, and was almost lost to the world, as Nemirovsky died in a concentration camp while the book was still in draft. Her daughter took a suitcase of her mother's papers around with her for fifty years, and never opened it, fearing it would be too upsetting; and only at the end of her life finally unpacked it and found the novel. FIRE IN THE BLOOD was similarly found in some old papers of Nemirovsky's and while not for me as great as SUITE FRANCAISE, is still a very fine novel. The theme is covered in the opening quotation, from one of the favourite novelists of this blog: Marcel Proust.
We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. The lives that you admire, the attitude that seem noble to you, have not been shaped by a paterfamilias or a schoolmaster, they have sprung from very different beginnings, having been influenced by everything evil or commonplace that prevailed around them. The represent a struggle and a victory.

The story is told from the perspective of an older man, who watches with fascination his young niece cheating on her husband.
It wasn't just about the pleasures of the flesh. No, it wasn't that simple. The flesh is easy to satisfy. It's the heart that is insatiable, the heart that needs to love, to despair, to burn with any kind of fire . . . that was what we wanted.

He feels that his old age has come on him unexpectedly, and references a charming old French proverb - "The days drag on while they years fly by". He has much to say on the relative serenity of middle age:
"They are happy with themselves. They have renounced the vain attempts of youth to adapt the world to their desires. They have failed, and, now, they can relax. In a few years they will once again be troubled by great anxiety, but this time it will be a fear of death; it will have a strange effect on their tastes, it will make them indifferent, or eccentric, or moody, incomprehensible to their families, strangers to their children. But between the ages of forty and sixty they enjoy a precarious sense of tranquility."

The niece's mother is presented throughout as a sweet older lady, but we slowly learn that the narrator was in his time her lover. She was then married to a dying old man, and so wouldn't sleep with him. He left her to travel to Africa to recover. He suffered much over this at the time, but really at heart this is a dark little novel, about how all our sufferings will eventually be eroded by time, till nothing much is left. Here he is, last line of the novel, the last time he saw her before he left for Africa:
"Helene," the dying man called out, "Helene." We didn't move. She seemed to be drinking me in, breathing in my heart. As for me, by the time I finally let her go I knew I had already begun to love her less.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

NORTHANGER ABBEY by Jane Austen

This books lies somewhere between the juvenalia and the great works, and I hadn't read it since I was a teenager. These are the joys of having the Complete Works on your Kindle! It's an enjoyable, straightforward read, and it's fun to trace the early outlines of the Austen mind. Here's a charming little bit, right near the end, after hte central couple have got together:
The anxiety, which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the telltale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.
God she's a great writer.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

AN EXPERIMENT IN LOVE by Hilary Mantel

From one novel about a university scholarship to another, from one grim 60s childhood to the next. Even the introduction notes how similar this book is to JERUSALEM THE GOLDEN, so it’s bizarre I read them back to back by sheer chance.

Hilary Mantel is by far the most diverse writer I’ve ever come across. From her lengthy Booker Prize winning history novels of Henry VIII (WOLF HALL and its sequels) to A CHANGE OF CLIMATE, a short contemporary story of child abuse in Africa, to A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY, a story of the French Revolution, her content veers wildly around.

AN EXPERIMENT IN LOVE is a story of anorexia, before it had a real name. It’s weird to see this girl who is at university wonder what’s wrong with her: you just want to scream: GO TO THE HEALTH CENTRE YOU OBVIOUSLY HAVE AN EATING DISORDER. The book ends with in a fire in the dormitory, which kills one of the heroine’s friends, and for some reason also cures her of her anorexia. It sounds climactic, and yet somehow it was mostly anti-climactic. I’ve never been so bored by a fire/murder.

So not one of my favourite of her weird array of novels. Though sometimes you see the Mantel gold shining through; as this, on her miserable childhood, which I’ll leave you with:
Perhaps I should regret my misspent youth, pity myself for having so little fun. But carpe diem is an empty sentiment, now that we all live so long.
That's fridge magnet material right there.

Monday, 11 May 2015

JERUSALEM THE GOLDEN by Margaret Drabble

This book tells the story of a young woman named Clara who escapes her grim Northern upbringing by getting a scholarship to go to University in London. It never ceases to amaze me how many of these novels there are – about people whose lives are changed by scholarships - all of them of course written by people who really did have their lives changed by scholarships. It makes me wonder how many great authors have been lost to the world through a lack of funding. Many, I suppose.

Clara’s own family is distant and joyless. Her father dies, and we are told: “Mr Maugham had provided for his family with a thoroughness that bordered upon the reckless – in so far as a man may squander upon insurance, he had done so.”

In London, Clara finds a friend named Clelia (not a typo) at a poetry reading. She is entranced:
She liked the cosy way they all seemed to assume that the evening was a wash-out, inevitably, and that he whole job of writing and reading poetry was somehow fundamentally ill-conceived. And yet, at the same time, they wanted to think they had done it well The mixture of general cynicism and personal vanity was peculiarly appealing . .
Margaret Drabble was an actress for a time, and you can entirely tell. This is a painfully accurate description of many a night I’ve spent in small theatres.

She falls in love with Clelia, and Clelia’s wealthy family, and more specifically with Clelia’s married brother. It’s more a learning curve than a real romance, and ends predictably in half-hearted tears. No doubt this is most accurate, with many University romances being more about finding yourself than finding someone else; but still I found it all rather a let down. I’m sure there are better uses to be made of your scholarship.

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY by Jane Austen

Oh go on then. One more time. What must this be? Seventh? Eighth? Really she’s such a fantastic writer. Hardly a wrong note. I’m actually losing my sense of humour about people who don’t agree.

Friday, 24 April 2015

DIARY OF A PROVINCIAL LADY (and its sequels) by E.M. Delafield

This charmingly funny series of books has never been out of print. Apparently somewhat autobiographical, it is daily entries in a diary of a woman living in rural England in the 1930s and 40s. It cost me 99p and after the first I read all the others:
THE PROVINCIAL LADY GOES FURTHER
THE PROVINCIAL LADY IN AMERICA
THE PROVINCIAL LADY IN WARTIME

At first, the world is very sweet and innocent. A huge topic is what the vicar's wife wants for the Women's Institute. It's still startlingly modern though:
Lady B asks me at tea how the children are, and adds, to the table at large, that I am "A Perfect Mother." Am naturally avoided, conversationally, after this, by everybody at the tea table.
or
This disposes once and for all of fallacy that days seem long when spent in complete idleness. They seem, on the contrary, very much longer when filled with ceaseless activities

Later as we enter the war, it becomes inevitably darker. What's sad is as the second world war begins, she talks a lot about what the 'last war' was like, reminding one that a large number of people were so unlucky as to live through both wars (the author was born in 1890). It's also interesting to see modernity on its way. At first, she spends a lot of time complaining about her cook; but later she complains about never having been taught to cook (as if it's some miraculous ability that only a few people possess).

(As a side point: I wonder who is the first female comic novelist? I can't think of anyone earlier than this - so perhaps this book as well as being entertaining is also a historic document.)

DANCING IN THE DARK by Karl Ove Knausgaard

This is volume 4 of Karl Ove's 6 volume auto-biography, and I feel like I've been waiting forever for it to come out. What is his translator taking so long about? This one is about his year as a trainee teacher in the far north of Norway. Well, that's what it's about in terms of plot. In reality, it's about how incredibly badly he wants to have sex. He is 19, which apparently by Norwegian standard is incredibly late to still be a virgin. In typical Karl Ove TMI fashion, which I love, he tells us that he has wet dreams three times a week. Can this be normal? I would like to ask my male friends but it seems a bridge too far. Here he is:
I would have given absolutely anything to sleep with a girl. Any girl actually. Whether it happened with someone I loved, like Hanne, or with a prostitute, made no difference, if it happened as part of a satanic initiation ceremony with goat's blood and hoods I would have said, yes, I'm up for that. But it wasn't something you were given, it was something you took. Exactly how, I didn't know, and then it became a vicious circle, for not knowing made me unsure of myself, and if there was one thing that disqualified you, one thing they didn't want, it was a lack of self-assurance. That much I had understood. You had to be confident, determined, convincing. But how to get to that position? How in God's name could you do that? How did you go from standing in front of a girl in full daylight, with all her clothes on, to sleeping with her in the darkness a few hours later?"

Later, he begins to get pretty close, managing to get quite a few girls' clothes off while disturbingly drunk. But then he has a major problem with premature ejaculation. This, he hypothesizes, is because he never masturbates. TMI! TMI! TMI! And yet this is why I love these books; I was about to write 'love Karl Ove', because they really seem one and the same. It's so rare that someone you know, either in life or in literature, really tells you what it was like for them. I'm not sure people are really keeping it secret. I more think it's very hard to know what it has all been like. A single day, maybe yesterday, we can do: but to convey your whole life, as Karl Ove's attempting: it's amazing.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

THE MOVIEGOER by Walker Percy

This is kind of like a French existentialist novel except set in the 1950s in America.

Here's the gleeful narrator: "It is a pleasure to carry out the duties of a citizen and to receive in return a receipt or a neat styrene card with one' sname on it certifying, so to speak, one's right to exist. What satisfaction I take in appearing the first day to get my auto tag and brake sticker! I subscribe to Consumer Reports and as a consequence I own a first class television set, an all but silent air conditioner and a very long lasting deodorant. My armpits never stink."

However he finds that despite his odourless armpits he is for some reason still unhappy. Even going on holiday with his friends is hollow: "The times we did have fun, like sitting around a fire or having a time with some girls, I had the feeling they were saying to me: 'Hows about this Binx? This is really it, isn't it, boy?', that they were were practically looking up from their girls to say this. For some reason I sank into a deep melancholy."

The novel makes the point that life is meaningless and happiness largely a personal decision. It appears to have been written when this was still an unusual point of view. It's strange to think that this, so innovative at the time, is now pretty much most people's default.
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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 ...