Thursday, 31 December 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
• 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
• BOOK OF MEMORY by Petina Gappah
• DON’T TELL ALFRED by Nancy Mitford
• YEAR OF WONDERS by Geraldine Brooks
• FARENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury
• MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA by Arthur Golden
• THE LONEY by Andrew Michael Hurley
• THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir
• 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 DISCOMFORT ZONE by Jonathan Franzen
• THE FISHERMEN by Chigozi Obioma
• THE END OF THE STORY by Lydia Davis
• WESTWOOD by Stella Gibbons
• MANSFIELD PARK by Jane Austen
• THE ROSIE PROJECT by Graeme Simsion
• EQUAL RITES by Terry Pratchett
• FIRE IN THE BLOOD by Irene Nemirovsky
• AN EXPERIMENT IN LOVE by Hilary Mantel
• JERUSALEM THE GOLDEN by Margaret Drabble
• 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
• THE BLESSING by Nancy Mitford
• LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE by Nancy Mitford
• THE NAKED AND THE DEAD by Norman Mailer
• THE PURSUIT OF LOVE by Nancy Mitford
• THE KNOWN WORLD by Edward P Jones
• KITTY AND THE PRINCE by Ben Shephard
• LAKE WOBEGON DAYS by Garrison Keillor


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.


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.