Saturday, 31 December 2016


I love the yearly recap. It’s fun to look back and remember what I read. It’s like taking a quick bite out of all the meals you ate this year, one after another. I find I’m often reminded of where I was when I read a particular book – that sun lounger, or that flight – or sometimes of what I was trying to avoid while reading it. Reading the posts themselves is also very weird, in that I’ve often forgotten what I thought of the book at the time, and it’s strange to encounter what must be my own narrative voice, and to meet myself again from the outside.

What’s the best of the year? There were not any huge standouts, as has sometimes happened, but lots of books I really enjoyed. I have a huge fondness for THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN by Christina Stead, which this person who wrote my blog described as ‘like drinking family life from a firehose’. I also enjoyed SOME RAIN MUST FALL by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the fifth book in his wonderfully dull saga of his life; THE GO-BETWEEN by LP Hartley, an unusual coming-of-age story, and PROBLEMS by Jade Sharma, a fun story of heroin addiction and sex work.

There were books I’m less grateful for. I gave up a lot of books this year – about ten – which is unusual for me. I think as I get older I realise how short a single life span really is, and am more careful what I spend it on. I really loathed WHAT I LOVED, by Siri Hustvedt, and THE KINDNESS by Polly Samson, both equally uptight stories of the British bourgeoisie, and THE DEATH OF THE HEART by Elizabeth Bowen, an unnecessarily fraught tale of adolescent love.

For the second year in a row, I managed to read about as many women as men, which I’m happy about, though it was not a particular goal.

My books have been a real joy to me, this year, as every year. I’m so grateful for all of them, both the good and the bad, and for all the people who wrote them for me. They’ve taken me to Libya, and the Discworld, to the First World War and 1970s New York, to Tsarist Russia and future London. I can’t imagine where I’d be without them

1) MISLAID by Nell Zink
2) WHAT I LOVED by Siri Hustvedt
3) LIFE CLASS by Pat Barker
4) THE CHRYSALIDS by John Wyndham
5) MORT by Terry Pratchett
6) HEARTBURN by Nora Ephron
7) THE KINDNESS by Polly Samson
8) YES PLEASE by Amy Poehler
9) SOME RAIN MUST FALL by Karl Ove Knausgaard
10) A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara
11) GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN by James Baldwin
12) NEW GRUB STREET by George Gissing
13) NOW IN NOVEMBER by Josephine Johnson
14) FATHERS AND SON by Ivan Turgenev
16) MY SON, MY SON by Howard Spring
17) BRIGHTON ROCK by Graham Greene
19) THE BACHELOR by Stella Gibbons
20) THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN by Christina Stead
23) BOSSYPANTS by Tina Fey
24) THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins
26) THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton
27) THE POWER OF THE DOG by Thomas Savage
28) BEING BROOKE by Emma Hart
31) THE BEACH by Alex Garland
32) GOLDEN HILL by Francis Spufford
33) PROBLEMS by Jade Sharma
34) THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson
35) THE DEATH OF THE HEART by Elizabeth Bowen
36) THE RETURN by Hisham Matar
37) MODERN LOVERS by Emma Straub
38) THE LOVER by Marguerite Duras
39) THE WINDUP GIRL by Paolo Gacigalup

THE WINDUP GIRL by Paolo Bacigalupi

I feel like almost every scifi novel can be summarised: “Great premise, but the plot struggled”. I wonder why this is? It’s almost as if all the energy of the author goes into the monumental effort of creating a world, and none is left over for characters or plot.

The premise here is really fun. It’s Bangkok, after what is called the ‘Contraction’ a period that comes after our own, which is apparently known as the ‘Expansion.’ In this world, sea level rises have wiped out most major cities, and fossil fuels are rare and strictly forbidden. Genetic engineering is everywhere, creating ‘megadonts’ – huge elephants, who turn wheels to make factories run while there is no more electricity, but more importantly, also holding a total stranglehold on food production. The ‘Calorie men’ are all powerful, coming from companies with fantastic names such as Midwest Compact and AgriGen. People die of ‘generipped’ plagues left and right, with wonderful names such ‘cibiscosis 118. A’.

The plot is less fun, being some mish-mash of typical movie scenes, and going on for rather too long. It’s also amazingly old fashioned in regards to gender. The wind-up girl of the title is a very advanced cyborg, bred to obey. She was designed as a secretary in Japan, but has ended up abandoned by her owner in Thailand and being a prostitute. Boringly, because of her genetic programming, she orgasms no matter what, including during rape scenes. And rape scenes there are, written with poorly masked enjoyment.

THE RETURN by Hisham Matar

I love the end of the year, because it gives me a chance to read all the “Best of the year” lists and thereby find new books. THE RETURN was on many of 2016’s lists, and it is indeed a fine book. It’s the true account of a family’s twenty five year search for their father, who was disappeared by the Gaddafi regime. He was abducted in Cairo, with the active connivance of the Mubarak regime, and for some time his family thought he would soon be back – his wife recorded football matches for him for months – but in fact he never returned; or, at least, he has not so far.

The story is in many ways deeply familiar, the terrible story of the disappeared all over the world, but’s it beautifully and honestly told here:
When your father has been made to disappear for nineteen years, your desire to find him is equalled by your fear of finding him. You are the scene of a shameful private battle

I learnt a great deal about Libya while reading this book. While I knew Gaddafi was a monstrous dictator, of course, I did not realise that he was also crazy – like Idi Amin levels of crazy. Apparently there was a rumour of a prison actually underneath his compound in Tripoli, which most people did not believe. After the revolution, they found there was indeed a prison, buried deep underground, for his most notable opponents – “both the living and the dead. Freezers were discovered there with the bodies of long deceased dissidents.”

He also enjoyed darkly comic dictator behaviour. For example, once he set a trap: He "invited young literary talent to take part in a book festival, then arrested them.” He held most of them for ten years. I still find it hilarious that among Gaddafi’s last words to the soldiers who found him in the culvert (after some no doubt enjoyable begging for mercy) was “What did I do to you?”

Matar describes himself as “infantilised by exile” as “if part of me had stopped developing the moment we left Libya,” and covers the back and forth of immigrant life very well:
Back in October 2011, I had considered never returning to Lydia. I was in New York, walking up Broadway, the air cold and swift, when the proposition presented itself. It seemed immaculate, a thought my mind had manufactured independently. As in youthful moments of drunkenness, I felt bold and invincible.. . . In the thirty years since we left Libya, my family and I had built associations with several surrogate cities: Nairobi, where we went on our escape from Libya, in 1979, and have continued to visit ever since; Cairo, where we settled into indefinite exile the following year; Rome, a vacation spot for us; London, where I went at the age of 15 for my studies and where for 29 years I have been doggedly trying to make a life for myself; Paris, where, fatigued and annoyed by London, I moved in my early thirties, vowing never to return to England, only to find myself back two years later. In all these cities, I had pictured myself one day calm and living in that faraway island, Manhattan, where I was born. I would imagine a new acquaintance asking me . . . that old tiresome question “where are you from?” And I, unfazed and free of the usual agitation, would casually reply, “New York”
. However he never quite manages this, because as he explains:
I am often unnerved by exiles I meet who, like me, have found themselves living in London but who, unlike me have surrendered to the place and therefore exude the sort of resigned stability I lack. Naked adoption of native mannerisms or the local dialect – this has always seemed to me a kind of humiliation.

The book focuses on Hisham’s return to Libya immediately after Gaddafi’s fall. There he is able to meet many old men, who have been released from various prisons as the regime has collapsed, and is able to see that his father is not among them. It is almost a relief:
For a quarter of a century now, hope has been seeping out of me. Now I can say, I am almost free of it. All that remains are a few scattered grains

Already sad, this book is made sadder by what has happened to Libya since his return - the brief hopeful period after Gaddafi's fall has been followed by full civil war. Clearly this is a great book; it's made me mourn a country I barely know.

THE LOVER by Marguerite Duras

Let me tell you that Marguerite Duras had a tough childhood. This semi-autobiographical novel gives the outlines. Poor, white, French Indochina. Unstable mother makes a terrible investment in farmland which then sinks into the sea. Older brother has a gambling problem and is unhealthily attached to unstable mother. Teenage girl wears old dresses of her mother’s (“It’s the sepia colour real silk takes on with wear,” she tells us, as if we all know what that’s like), and strange gold evening shoes, and a man’s fedora. One day on the ferry across the Mekong to boarding school, where she is the only white student, she meets a Chinese millionaire, and becomes his mistress. Everyone believes it must be for the money, and so she tells them, but in fact it is some kind of wild romance, with lots of showering each other and weeping. His father won’t let him marry her, and eventually her mother sends her off to France. She doesn’t see her family again for decades, not so much because of the shame as the cost of travel by ship.

This is the sharp end of the colonial experience, and is a beautiful, dream like sort of book, capturing Vietnamese gardens by night, mixed race high schools of the 1930s, and family dysfunction in a strange and gorgeous way. Here’s a taste, in speaking about her mother, who while unstable was also indomitable in her own way:
She owes it to herself to do so, so she does, her cousins are all that’s left of the family, so she shows them the family photos. Can we glimpse something of this woman through this way of going on? The way she sees everything through to the bitter end without ever dreaming she might give up, abandon – the cousins, the effort, the burden. I think we can. It’s in this valour, human, absurd, that I see true grace.

MODERN LOVERS by Emma Straub

Enjoyable story about a pair of families in New York. Sort of tiptoed around being literary fiction, but ended up simply well plotted and briskly paced. Largely forgettable, and indeed I’ve almost already forgotten it.


I’ve abandoned a lot this year, and often when I was quite some way through. Most recently:

THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY by Robert James Waller: Rare example of movie being better than book. Book is horrible schmaltz

VOSS by Patrick White: This sounded so good – foundational text of contemporary Australian literature, love story based on real life nineteenth century German botanist who journeyed into the Outback – what could go wrong? Everything apparently

Friday, 30 December 2016


I had five minutes of wifi available before we left a Bangkok hotel, and so I downloaded Thoreau’s WALDEN. I had a long flight ahead of me, and I suddenly thought – really? No doubt it is a towering classic but it may also be a very dull account of living by some pond. So with two minutes remaining I chose a title from the bestseller lists. This is partly so I was sure of having something pacey and plotty to read, but also because as regular readers will be aware I just finished a mass market thriller (Paula Hawkins’ GIRL ON THE TRAIN) and figured maybe I am just that kind of person now – the kind of person who reads mass market fiction.

Apparently I am not yet that person. I did read it, and it made the flight pass, but it was sort of lame. Girl is in love with gorgeous best friend who is with obviously inappropriate girlfriend. You pretty much know the plot from there. It was all set in Georgia, and everybody was very salt of the earth. There was a lot of stuff which I found surprising but the characters seemed to think was quite normal: people fighting in bars, littering like it wasn’t a big deal, and talking about PMS as accounting for womens’ behaviour. I guess this is what Trump voters mean when they say ‘real’ America. Shiver.


This book is about the relationship of a father and son, and is, as the author tells us early on “ . . . in all its parts, and so far as the punctilious attention of the writer has been able to keep it so, is scrupulously true”

Fabulous. I love a good effort to tell us in detail about your childhood, not least because I can’t ever imagine attempting such a thing myself. Who knows what the truth of all that is? Who can even remember it? I found this especially interesting because the author’s childhood happened in the 1850s, and I can’t recall ever reading an earlier version of memoir than this. I see Wikipedia calls it among the first psychological autobiographies, whatever that may be.

Edmund had a particularly interesting childhood, being brought up by fundamentalist Christians called the Plymouth Bretheren. Here he is making his first small rebellion, an attempt to find out what god would do in case of idolatry:
I knelt down on the carpet in front of the table and looking up I said my daily prayer in a loud voice, only substituting the address ‘Oh Chair!’ for the habitual one. Having carried this act of idolatry safely through, I waited to see what would happen. It was a fine day, and I gazed up at the slip of white sky above the houses opposite, and expected something to appear in it. God would certainly exhibit his anger in some terrible form, and would chastise my impious and wilful action
He is not struck down by lightning, and so begins a long path away from his father’s religion. His father has the entire Bible by heart, down to the minor prophets, and for ‘fun’ he likes to read Revelations and look for signs of the end of days. He is also however a complex character, being an eminent marine naturalist, who is really distressed by the first ideas of Darwin, and tries to reconcile what is obviously scientifically true with the seven days of the Bible by putting forward the idea that God did create the world in seven days, but that he created it so it looks millions of years old. The poor man is roundly mocked by scientists and ministers alike.

Eventually Edmund grows up and goes to London, as everybody it seems must do eventually. His father pursues him there with letters about scripture and molluscs, which are a great distress to him, and from which he quotes at length:
Over such letters as these I am not ashamed to say that I sometimes wept; the old paper I have just been copying shows traces of tears shed upon it more than 40 years ago

It’s a touching story of someone’s childhood, and I recommend it, though it left me a little sad. There’s something depressing about thinking of how everyone has their own story of their childhood, their own memories of their parents, all those stories, going way back into history, and mostly forgotten now.

Thursday, 29 December 2016


I love THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P. I have read it two or three times and find it insightful and refreshing every time, so when the algorithm at Amazon suggested I might like the prequel, NEW YEAR’S, I was like: hell yeah, computer function. I would like that.

It’s set before LOVE AFFAIRS and is told from the perspective of Nathanial’s good friend Aurit. It’s brief, but as tart and enjoyable as the main novel. Try this man at a farmers market:
He yawned and shuffled his weight from foot to foot, looking not only bored, but aggrieved, as if being so near fresh, locally grown produce were actually painful to him, as if he were morally opposed to having any contact at all with food outside of what was served to him at a restaurant or delivered fully cooked to his apartment in a plastic bag. His posturing annoyed Aurit, struck her as an affectation, an assertion that he was less bourgeois than she and the others here and deserved some kind of medal for it. Such bullshit.

Or this description of – I suspect – many people’s mothers:
My mom is probably the better person in a lot of ways, but she is also difficult into personally – she’s sort of servile in a way that’s annoying in and of itself, but it’s especially hard to bear because she is also seething with resentment about being underappreciated.

Aurit herself is an interesting character, being one of these people who is somewhat scarred by not having been popular enough in high school. She messes up a good relationship in college by cheating with someone who she doesn’t particularly like, but whom she could never have had in high school, just to prove that she can. The main focus of this very brief story is Aurit’s relationship with Nathaniel. To me, the outcome is a little bit pat. Whereas in LOVE AFFAIRS you are never quite sure where Nathanial’s problem lies – it’s as hard to tell what’s wrong as it is in real life – here it’s all a bit more clear cut, which I did not so much admire. However, I still enjoyed it about 100% more than most books I read this year, and I hope Wadman’s busy in Brooklyn writing something new. I’m sure the algorithm will let me know when it’s done.

Monday, 26 December 2016

THE BEACH by Alex Garland

I was on a beach holiday in Thailand, so the least I could do was read THE BEACH. I read it in a single day, pretty much, from lunch table to deckchair to middle of the night by Kindle’s glow. I can’t quite decide what I think of it.

The book tells the story of a young man, Richard, who goes “travelling”.
Collecting memories, or experiences, was my primary goal when I first started travelling. I went about it in the same way as a stamp collector goes about collecting stamps . . . . Most of the list was pretty banal. I wanted to see the Taj Mahal, Borobudur, the Rice Terraces in Bagio, Angkor Wat. Less banal, or maybe more so, was that I wanted to witness extreme poverty . . . Of course witnessing property was the first to be ticked off the list. Then I had to graduate to the more obscure staff. Being in a riot was something I pursued with a truly obsessive zeal . . .

TELL ME IT’S SATIRE. Can you imagine anything more disrespectful than tourist-ing someone’s low income, or political problems? It is thus obviously delightful when Richard, in his quest for the perfect paradise with like-minded travellers finds instead a police state which ends in murder and dismemberment. This is exactly what you hope for, for him, and the others. Though I can’t shake the feeling there is something unattractively prissy and bourgeois in my enjoyment of the death of his particular dream.

Garland shows he isn’t shy by beginning the story the traditional way: with a map. Richard is given a map which allegedly shows an island paradise. Richard and two French people whose he’s met that afternoon agree to try and find this island. Eventually they do, having to get through a 2 km swim, a large-scale mauijana farm operation, and a waterfall. Once there, they are not very warmly welcomed by the 30 or so travellers already on the beach. They fear their paradise being “discovered,” as Koh Samui and so forth were before. This strikes me as a strange fear, but it’s quite central to the plot. As Sal, the leader puts it, describing their eleven years of travelling before they found the beach:
Living with death. Time limits on everything you enjoy. Sitting on a beautiful beach, waiting for a fucking time-limit to come up. Affecting the way you look at the sand and the sunsets and the way you taste the rice. Then moving on and waiting for it to happen all over again

They are eventually accepted by the group, and at first it does really seem that they have discovered Eden, but slowly it becomes clear that it’s actually Lord of the Flies, with bonus lightly armed Thai militia. Everyone is smoking an awful lot of pot, and with it is coming some serious paranoia. Sal refuses to get medical help for injured members of the group, fearing this will reveal the location of the beach. Later a couple of people turn up on the island who Richard gave the map to on impulse, and he seriously considers killing them rather than letting them find the beach. Fortunately for him, the new arrivals run into the militia, with horrifying results, taking the problem out of his hands.

So it all goes to shit, but you can see why Richard, who is English, and his French friends aren’t that bothered. Once they decide to get out:
72 hours later we had airline tickets and replacement passports from our respective embassies
For some reason this made me really angry. Partly I think this is because just the queuing alone for my last passport took 12 hours, but mostly because it makes so very plain the very prosaic structures of privilege underlying all this supposedly wild adventure. It’s lots of fun to take big risks and explore the untamed wilderness of Asia, when you know very well you can turn around and go back home, to the delightfully tamed wilderness of Europe, any time you please. It’s nice when poverty’s just a vacation.

I should mention also that Richard has clearly played a lot of videogames and watched a lot of war movies and an interesting strand of this book is his mental collapse, a sort of hot mess of early male adulthood and marijuana. I haven’t really covered it here, but I think that another reader might have found that the most interesting part of this novel. Someone else might have enjoyed the Robinson Crusoe aspects, which are also here in abundance. I guess having written this post, I do know what I think of this book: it’s really rather good, a thriller that keeps you up to midnight, but also a novel with lots of big interesting ideas. Just so you know that Garland was only twenty six when he wrote it. GAR!

GOLDEN HILL by Francis Spufford

It is not every day that this blog can call a book “rollicking”. This however is that day. This book is an attempt by a contemporary author to recreate an 18th-century novel. I always love these kind of efforts, like recreating a dinosaur from a fragment in amber. It has a lovely recreation of this world.
Where the counting office had smelled of ink, smoke, charcoal and the sweat of men, this had the different savour of waxed wood, food, rosewater and tea leaves, with the suggestion of (what is common to both sexes) the necessary house

The protagonist travels from London to New York, and it’s interesting to see how tiny he finds the latter in comparison to the former. Is also fun to see coffee shops as much in fashion then as now:
When he had ate his fill, and proceeded from the urgent first cup and necessary second to the voluntary third which might be toyed with at leisure

It is interestingly contemporary in that SPOILER ALERT the plot turns on the attempt to buy slaves into freedom, and in that the woman the protagonist falls in love with turns him down. It’s unclear if this is because she is crazy.

It a fun book, but for my taste a little bit too full of the 18th century equivalent of car chases, with much running around on rooftops, and a couple of duels. It passed the time, but I must say I’ve almost already forgotten all about it.

PROBLEMS by Jade Sharma

This is the hilarious story of one woman’s descent into heroin addiction and prostitution. This was easily one of the funniest books I read this year, though I’m not quite sure how, as in addition to the drug problem and sex work she also has an eating disorder and an alcoholic husband who leaves her. It’s partly that the book is so well observed. Take this – I feel like I’ve met this man a million times:
He was one of those old, gross men who went through life trying to muster the courage to commit to sexually harassing someone instead of just being a slimy perv.
Or this, on big city living:
NYC is like high school: trends, being judgemental, and how impressive it is when you find out someone has a car – Really? You have a car!
Or this:
When you’re a fat girl and you make an effort with your clothes and hair, it’s like “Why bother, you’re still fat.” Like you’re saying to the world you’re content with being fat. But if you just throw on sweatpants, you are this fat girl walking around in sweatpants. Have some self-respect. You can’t win.
Or this:
On Valentine’s Day I sat across from Peter in a restaurant on the Upper East Side. Candlelight flickered, my man wore a tie, and I felt empty. At some point you realise you aren’t waiting anymore for your life to start. Your life’s happening right now, and it’s pretty dull.

It’s also the laconic contemporary voice, which reads just like someone speaking to you. This hyper casual, hyper real tone is very difficult to do I think:
I regularly told people my father was white. Not because of some deep seated issue with being Indian, but because I didn’t know much about Indian culture, and I felt more American than anything else. I lied because it felt true. I said it to get off the hook for answering questions about why cows are sacred or whatever

For all the hilarity, it is of course also a sad book. Early on, we learn that the protagonist is having an affair with an older man. It’s hilariously dysfunctional. Here they are on an awkward taxi ride:
There was something about a man not caring if he ever saw me again that made me want to suck his cock.
But it’s less funny later, when she says:
But girls know it’s really not that big of a deal to give head, get fucked or have a guy come on your face. As a girl, you’ve probably been pressured into fucking at least once, and probably pity-fucked some loser once, and over time you’ve done enough stuff that you really didn’t feel like doing that eventually it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal

This is not my experience, but I hear it is for a lot of women. Sad when sex work is not such a stretch.

I highly recommend this book. My computer ran out of battery on a flight, and I hadn’t thought through the fact that I couldn’t recharge in Casablanca on my layover as I didn’t have an adapter, so I was somewhat stressed out, as I had a lot to do. I started this book instead, and was done by the time I landed in London, and in a much happier mood.

Sunday, 4 December 2016


This book, written in 1959, is apparently a famous progenitor of the modern supernatural thriller. Shirley Jackson is well know as the literary mother of Steven King. The story begins with an elderly scientist who invites a group of people to come to study an old house with him - Hill House - which has a long and strange history. The group includes a wealthy young man, heir to the house; a beautiful young lady who as a child experienced a poltergeist; and our main character, a young woman who has spent much of her life unhappily caring for her invalid mother. Here's a rather fabulous description of her:
Eleanor Vance was 32 years old when she came to Hill House. The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister. She disliked her brother-in-law and her five-year-old niece, and she had no friends.

The book has most of the bare bones of what we'd recognise in such a story. There is the house the locals won't visit, the curious scientist, the nightly visits by the unexplained, and of course the death at the end. But in many ways it's less fun than what we now know as the genre. First of all, the group fully believes from the beginning that the house is evil. Thus we are denied the joy of the slow revelation to unprepared and attractive young people. Second, despite the setup, the wealthy young man and the beautiful young woman never get together. Thus, we are denied anybody creeping around the house in their underwear at midnight, which obviously should always be a key ingredient of such a story. Lastly the body count is depressingly sparse, with only one death. Admittedly, it's the narrator's, which is dramatic, but I could have done with a couple more. We're bloodythirsty up in here in the twenty first century.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

THE DEATH OF THE HEART by Elizabeth Bowen

I don't really know what was going on in the 1930s in Europe, but damn, the literature of that period is tortured. And it's not tortured in some kind of physical, comprehensible way; their worries are all very non-physical, or metaphysical, or something. This book tells the story of a 16-year-old girl, who after the her mother has died, has to go and live with her half-brother in London. Predictably, everybody is very tortured about this. There are lots of scenes where drinking tea is agony.

Things ramp up a level when a young man who had previously been flirting with the half-brother's wife becomes interested in the 16-year-old girl. There is some early flirtation, and then immediately . . . to the drama! He goes on about how he doesn't know why he can't open up to her; why he loves her, but not in a way she can understand; about how he is weighted down by her expectations. She is completely mystified. A contemporary reader is somewhat less so. GIRL, HE IS OBVIOUSLY GAY. Get over it.

Falling in love with a gay man is by no means an unknown problem in the modern world, but at least today you know what you are doing, and you can ascribe your issue to what it is: ie, your sexuality, rather than your soul.

Elizabeth Bowen is thought by some to be among the most accomplished of 20th-century novelists. On the evidence of this book, I am not among the some

Sunday, 27 November 2016


CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY is a classic of South African fiction. It was described by Nadine Gordimer as "the most influential South African novel ever written".

I can't quite understand why. I can only assume it is because the message it gives - that black people in South Africa in the 1940s are unjustly and entirely oppressed - which now seems so obvious, was, at the time it was written, revolutionary.

The book tells the story of a elderly black pastor from the rural areas who goes to Johannesburg to find his son. As is traditional for sons who go to Johannesburg, he has gone to the bad - but badder than most: he has shot a white man in a home invasion, and is sentenced to death. The old man's search for his son, and then the reconciliation he attempts with the father of the murdered white man, gives a picture of the whole of South Africa in one small sad story.

What did surprise me in this book was the account of the scale of the violent crime in South Africa at that time. For some reason, I thought extreme and random violence was a more contemporary problem; but apparently it has been an issue for almost as long as Joburg has been a city
We shall live from day to day, and put more locks on the doors, and get a fine fierce dog when the fine fierce bitch next door has pups, and hold onto our handbags more tenaciously; and the beauty of the trees by night, and the raptures of lovers under the stars, these things we shall forego. We shall forego the coming home drunk and through the midnight streets, and the evening walk over the star-lit veld. We shall be careful, and knock this off our lives, and knock that off our lives, and hedge ourselves about with safety and precaution. And our lives will shrink, but they shall be the lives of superior beings; and we shall live with fear, but at least it will not be a fear of the unknown.

I come from a fairly dangerous city - not a Joburg, but certainly not an Amsterdam; not a city where you walk around after dark; and I never really thought before about the many small choices a society makes over time that end up with a situation where it feels normal to never ever be out after dark without a car wrapped around you


God, this novel has a great first line:
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there
I bet when Hartley thought of that, he was like BOOM.

The book opens with a man finding a box of stuff from his school days, full of bits of old junk and a diary.
It was a roll-call in reverse; the children of the past announced their names, and I said "here". Only the diary refused to disclose its identity.
This diary opens the door to a rather painful coming of age story. A young man called Leo goes to spend the summer with his school friend Marcus. He gets involved in carrying letters between Marcus' wealthy sister, and a local farmhand. It's an interesting book, because the main action happens 'offstage.' It's this love story where the main action is happening, and we just see it through the eyes of the go-between. It all ends very badly, almost impossibly so for a contemporary reader, for whom the chasm of class is hard to understand. The book's narrator is an older man, living in the 1950s, looking back to his own boyhood at the turn of the century, and much of the appeal I think is the evocation of the mystery and melancholy of our own past; of how little our choices are in retrospect our own, but rather a product of our moment.

Also enormously successful this is evocation of schoolboy life at the turn of the last century. How is this:
But in those days schoolboys seldom called each other by their first names. These were regarded simply as a liability, though not such a heavy liability as one's middle name, which it was just foolhardy to reveal.

Or this:
Schoolboys have a much clearer perception of each other's characters than grown-ups have, for their characters are not obscured by a veil of good manners: they deal in hard words, they have no long-term policy, as men have, for asserting themselves, they prefer short profits and quick returns

It's a wonderful book, and I'm surprised it's not more well known. Or perhaps it is, and I just missed it? If so, don't make my mistake

Sunday, 20 November 2016


This book solidified for me something I think I'd always known -something we all know - but which I'd never quite put into words: Tina Fey is just much better than Amy Poehler. I know! I feel bad to say it. But it's just true. I read Amy Poelher's YES PLEASE, and couldn't quite understand why she'd written it. It didn't seem to have much point, But now I get it - clearly, she wanted to write BOSSYPANTS. Who wouldn't? It's a really fun little book. I can't quite tell you what makes this book so appealing. It's partly that it's comic. Here for example is a mother's prayer for her daughter:
Lead her away from acting but not all the way to finance. Something where she can make her own hours but still feel intellectually fulfilled and get outside sometimes and not have to wear high heels

Grant her a rough patch from 12 to 17. Let her draw horses and be interested in Barbies for much too long, for childhood is short – a tiger flower blooming magenta for one day – and adulthood is long, and dry humping in cars will wait

It's also very wise:
A friend once told me, "don't wear what fashion designers tell you to wear. Where what they wear." His point being that the most designers, no matter what they throw onto the runway, favour simple, flattering pieces for themselves

And full of fine observation:
At a certain point your body wants to be disgusting. While your teens and 20s without identifying and emphasizing your "best features, "your late 30s and 40s are about fighting back decay. You pluck your patchy beard daily. Your big toe may start to turn jauntily inward. Over night you may grow one long straight white pubic hair.

I recommend it. It made a long flight fly by.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins

I have apparently now become the sort of person who occasionally reads mass market thrillers. Does this mean I am losing my youthful idealism? My mental energy? Or does it just mean I was in an airport and was facing flying back across the Atlantic for the fourth time in ten days? Anyway never mind, there it is: I've been reading a best seller.

It was kind of fun book, with a female central character who was, for once, not strong. Indeed, she is an unreliable narrator and that is where half the fun of the novel lies. Paula Hawkins is Zimbabwean, I'm proud to say, but she's obviously lived in London:
We used to go to that pub all the time; I can't remember why we stopped. I never liked it all that much, too many couples just the right side of 40 drinking too much and casting around for something better, wondering if they'd have the courage

Yes, that's definitely a common London scene.. I won't tell you too much else about the book. It's a thriller so it's hard not to give away spoilers. All I'll let you know is that I read it, and I can't decide what it means about me that I enjoyed it.

Sunday, 6 November 2016


I didn't like this book at first because it was so dreamlike and weird. Then I started to like it, because it was so dreamlike and weird.

Set in the near future, or what was the near future in the 1960s (which is now, I suppose, the past) it tells the story of a world grown too hot and of all the major cities underwater. It's a pretty contemporary view of the apocalypse. The story centres on a man called Kerans, who is a scientist conducting tests. Most of humanity is clustered in the Arctic Circle, but he is way south, in England. His team is recalled as the water keeps rising. He refuses to return. Here is where it gets weird. The world is regressing to a past age - the Triassic - with huge plants appearing, alligators everywhere, etc. So human beings are apparently also regressing back to a more primal sort of life form. Kerans, and some of the other scientists, are beginning to lose their humanity, their individuality, and frankly they're rather liking lettin it go. It's the joy of the lower life form.

The key delight of this book is this vision of abandoned cities. Here they are in drained London:
They stood in the entrance to one of the huge cinemas, sea urchins and cucumbers flickering faintly across the tiled floor, sand dollars flowering in the former ticket booth. Beatrice gathered her skirt in one hand, and they moved slowly down the line of cinemas, past cafes and amusement arcade, patronised now only by the bivalves and the molluscs

That sort of thing is the heart of the book really. But aware that this doesn't fill very many pages, Ballard does a reasonable job of knocking together a few other characters and a bit of a plot. A bunch of pirates arrive, and managed to drain the city he is in. Leicester Square appears spookily out of the water, fountains full of weeds. In a half-hearted way Kerans falls in love with strange woman called Beatrice.

While Ballard may be prescient when it comes to rising seawater, he, like other science-fiction writers of the mid-20th century is extremely un-prescient about the rise of women. Beatrice is beautiful and useless, a woman of the 1940s stranded in what's supposed to be the 21st-century. It's an odd blindspot across vritually all classic science fiction that I can think of. They can imagine a flying car, a zombie apocalypse, a cyborg nation, but a lady with a mind of her own: let's not be crazy.

THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton

I enjoyed this book, but it also annoyed me. Or to be more exact, the author annoyed me. She is 28, she's just won the Booker, and she's done it with an 800 page pastiche of the Victorian thriller. Who on earth thinks to themselves, I know – I'll just write an 800 page pastiche of the Victorian thriller. That's a good idea! That will get published! That will win the Booker! And yet it did. I guess in a way it reminds me of Donald Trump; and that almost in an inspirational kind of way. Now, hold your pitchforks: what I mean is, Donald Trump is almost inspirational, when looked at in a certain kind of way. It shows you that you can dream wild dreams, and no matter how improbable, how little qualified you are, how laughable they may be, they can still come true. But back to THE LUMINARIES.

The plot has many twists and turns, and I suspect this is what many people will most enjoy about this book. For me however, what I enjoyed was the confident Victoriana. I'm a great lover of the Victorian novel, and there's something really fun about seeing a new one produced. One tends to think that the stock of Victorian novels is set; that once I get to the end of Dickens and Trollope and Collins and, scratching around a bit – Carlyle, there's nothing left to read. But what do you know – here's a new Catton! I'll give you this, as a flavour of the whole book:
Moody was not unaware of the advantage his inscrutable grace afforded him. Like most excessively beautiful persons, he had studied his own reflection minutely and, in a way, knew himself from the outside best; he was always in some chamber of his mind perceiving himself from the exterior. He had passed a great many hours in the alcove of his private dressing room, where the mirror tripled his image into profile, half-profile, and square: Van Dyck’s Charles, though a good deal more striking. It was a private practice, and one he would likely have denied – for how roundly self-examination is condemned, by the moral prophets of our age! As if the self had no relation to the self, and one only looked in mirrors to have one’s arrogance confirmed; as if the act of self-regarding was not as subtle, fraught and ever-changing as any bond between twin souls. In his fascination Moody sought less to praise his own beauty than to master it. Certainly whenever he caught his own reflection, in a window box, or in a pane of glass after nightfall, he felt a thrill of satisfaction – but as an engineer might feel, chancing upon a mechanism of his own devising and finding it splendid, flashing, properly oiled and performing exactly as he had predicted it should.

Isn't it charming? I also enjoy the idea, and think it's true. Appearance can very much be manufactured, but it takes significant effort, and that effort needs to start early. I wish I'd known about this as a teenager. I wish I'd spent more time on it. I wasted my adolescence reading books, when I should have been looking in mirrors, practising my face. Too late now: the lines are all set, and getting deeper every year.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

THE POWER OF THE DOG by Thomas Savage

This book definitely had me at hello. Here is the opening:
Phil always did the castrating; firstly sliced of the cup of the scrotum and toast at the side; next to force down first one and then the other testicle, split the rainbow membrane that included, toilet out, and tossed into the fire where the branding iron glowed. There was surprisingly little blood. In a few moments the testicles exploded like huge popcorn.

Don't pretend you don't love it. Here is what it's about: homophobia in the wild West. SOLD! The book tells the story of two brothers, one of whom is fat and ugly. He marries, and this marriage infuriates the other. I won't tell you tell you to much more about the plot, as its full of interesting twists and unexpected turns but I will say that the homophobe gets what's coming to him in satisfying Cowboy style.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

BRIGHTON ROCK by Graham Greene

I read Graham Greene's THE END OF THE AFFAIR a couple of years ago, in which I learnt that Graham Greene has a lot of issues with God. BRIGHTON ROCK is an earlier work, for me less successful, but still jam packed with Catholic anxiety.

It tells the story of a seventeen year old called Pinkie, who kills a man, and then has to keep on killing other people to keep it secret: "Christ! he thought. Have I got to massacre the world?"

Pinkie is something of a sociopath, so the murdering doesn't worry him except as an inconvenience. What concerns him more is that he also has to marry a young girl to ensure she can't testify against him, and he finds the idea of sex deeply repellent. His strange little sixteen year old wife agrees to marry him, though she regards a city hall wedding as - actually, literally, a mortal sin. It's quite interesting how free your life can be once you have committed a mortal sin. I guess I've probably committed lots of mortal sins, but it's not the same if you don't believe in them.

Eventually Pinkie is brought to justice by a middle aged woman who hunts him down on the basic assumption that good ought to triumph. She is in an odd detective, particularly it seems to Greene, who is always on about her cleavage. Try this: "Her big breasts, which had never suckled a child of her own, felt a merciless compassion." Very odd. I'd be willing to bet a large sum that no one reading that sentence could possibly doubt the gender of its author. She has a fantastic general principle in life though, often repeated, and which I really enjoy: "The world is a good place, as long you don't weaken." Wise advice.

All ends reasonably well, even for the strange little bride, who is comforted by her priest with the reflection that "You cannot conceive, nor can I, of the appalling strangeness of the mercy of god." And with that cheerful reflection, the relatively happy ending is upon us.


Given all the real problems that Eastern Europe faced in the twentieth century I'm not sure why so many twentieth century Eastern European books are about imaginary problems.

In this book a couple goes to Italy on their honeymoon. The husband, Mihaly, gets left behind by the train at a junction, and somehow decides that this is the ideal moment to leave his wife. The reason? Extreme nostalgia (?). Apparently he is nostalgic for his high school friends, especially one girl he was in love with and her brother who he nearly killed himself with because of death being so beautiful (??).

In an unlikely coincidence he meets one of his other high school friends who is now a monk. His advice is to go to Rome, but for no reason (???). In Rome, he meets an academic who tells him what he should do - the practice that will set him free - it's obviously the study of religious history (????).

And that's where I had to quit. I just couldn't take it anymore. Though I do want to know where it ends. I suspect I was about ten pages off a talking cat.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

THE BACHELOR by Stella Gibbons

I'm an enormous admirer of Gibbons' classic COLD COMFORT FARM, a book about how not to take yourself too seriously, but I had this idea somehow that she was a bit of a one-hit-wonder, and so had not tried any of her other books. Last year I attempted so tried WESTWOOD, which was good, but not exactly a wonder; and now have tried THE BACHELOR, which while not close to her classic, was really pretty great.

THE BACHELOR tells the story of a brother and sister in their forties who have settled into their life in rural England and are gently rotting there, until the second world war brings with it change and - unexpectedly - romance. Most of the joy of this book is in the comedy. Here we are on a young woman who has been involved in a scandal:
Young men, on hearing that a young woman has been betrayed do not clench their fists and call the betrayer a villain. If they are good young men they make a note to avoid the young woman as a possible bore and if they are bad young men they make a note of her telephone number. While we are on this painful subject it may be added that a recitative on her sufferings from the young woman's own lips to a new young man is about as favourable to her hopes as if she had proffered him arsenic

Or here's a description of a woman:
Mrs Feilding had been the possessor of one of those personalities like an enormous old fashioned battlepiece, all over rearing horses and hussars hauling cannon out of the mud and soldiers expiring in the arms of their comrades with Napoleon or somebody of that sort in the middle of it; no one can ignore it, although it exhausts everybody to tears, and weaker spirits simply avoid the room where it hangs

Or there's a bus, that's since the war has been able to vary its schedule and is now so erratic it "generally behaves more like a medieval baron than a bus" Brilliant description of public transport everywhere (except in Switzerland, or so I'm told).

The book does have it unusual side, in showing a young woman actively planning to seduce a young man - rare in books of this period, that typically assume, with ISIS, that woman are utterly free of sexual interest. It also has its serious side. The brother has long been dismissed by his mothers and sisters as rather a lightweight, and he has tended to laugh along with them, and agree. They have also typically tried to disrupt his romantic endeavours, so at 45 he is unmarried. He's not unhappy; or perhaps he is. That's part of the interest: even he is not really sure.

He ends up engaged by the end of the story, but it's interesting how near a thing it is; how close he is to not really caring one way or the other. As Gibbons puts it: "Another ten years, even another five, and Habit and Comfort and Humorous Self-depreciation, the great stones that lie on such roots and bleach and dry them, would have done their work." It's interesting that such a funny book should be so interested in the dangers of comedy.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016


This is a book like none other I've ever read. The characters behave so badly, and express themselves so bizarrely, that I can only think it comes direct from life. Reading it is a bit like drinking at the firehose of family life - and not a very happy family at that.

The book tells the story of a family slowly losing their money. The father Sam is an idealist, selfish and self-centred as only idealists can be; the mother Henny is a bitter former debutante. The story mostly focuses on the eldest child, Louie, daughter of her father's first marriage, and half-sister to the other five children in the family. Here's a taster, the mother speaking of her step-daughter to the father:
She wanted to know whether Sam knew that his beautiful genius' clothes were smeared with filth and that most of the time the great big overgrown wretch with her great lolloping breasts looked as if she'd rolled in pigsty or a slaughter house, and that she couldn't stand the streams of blood that poured from her fat belly and that he must get someone else to look after such an unnatural big beast.

Sam had come into the house when Henny began her screams and stood their goggling, while Louie, going paer, stood petrified with horror and pride, looking reproachfully at her father and expecting him to scold Henny. But Sam goggled like some insignificant wretch crept in secretly on the Eleusinian mysteries, frightened but licking his lips.

Or here's the mother - Henny on her inlaws:
Henny smirked even more, seeing the wilcat, hedgerow, wild-weed, slum-artisan, cheap-Baltimore family grow more jolly; seeing Ebby, poor ship's carpenter, who had an imbecile for a wife and one doddle-headed child, and gaptoothed Benbow, with that strumpet girl, Leslie (as Henny put it), and two dumb boys, and old soak Charles, and garage owner Peter (who had actually begun with a junk car and three cowbells collecting old bedsprings and fat women's bulging corsets!), and Bonnie (obviously sleeping with some man who was doing her the dirt) and Jinny (whose pert daughter Essie needed her face slapped) and Jo (whose hair was like a haystack in a fit) and all their weedy, rank children getting merrier and merrier on the dungheap that was their life. Born in the muck, thriving in the muck, and proud of the muck, thought Henrietta!

The narrative is full of invention. Here's the children, running from their parents fighting: " . . . seemed not to take the slightest interest in the obscene drama played daily in their eyes and ears, but, like little fish scuttling before the disturbing oar, would disappear mentally and physically into the open air or into odd corner of the house". Or here's how she describes a note arriving to Louie during class: "by desk express"

It's a fabulous book. It ends SPOILER ALERT with Louie attempting to kill her parents with poison, and succeeding with her step-mother. A tribute to the quality of the book is that this seems completely like a realistic and understandable thing to do, rather than like unhinged melodrama.

Jonathan Franzen said this about the novel: "This novel . . . is one of the great literary achievements of the twentieth century. I carry it in my head the way I carry childhood memories; the scenes are of such precise horror and comedy that I feel I didn't read the book so much as live it."

I think I agree with him. I am not sure why THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN is not better known. Perhaps it's proof, if more were needed, that life is after all not fair.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

NOW IN NOVEMBER by Josephine Johnson

This won the Pulitzer in 1934, when the author was 24. It was her first novel. Can you imagine? I haven’t read any of her other eleven novels, but I think we can rest assured that the rest of her writing life was basically one long case of that-difficult-second-album.

The book tells the story of a family who are impoverished during the Great Depression and have to move out of the city. They end up as small scale farmers, and the novel covers a long and terrible period of drought. It is a stark reminder of how brutal agriculture is, and what a miracle food can be.

It’s an extraordinarily lyrical novel of the natural world and I veered wildly between loving and hating it. Here’s an example: “In the thought and strangeness of self we could spend hours as traveling through a labyrinth, and it was a riddle sufficient in those day to keep the mind quick and seeking, hungry and never fed; and in the mystery of the turnip, you forgot the turnip leaf”

What? Anyway, an interesting reminder of what hard work actually is, and of the value of rain. Probably useful for me to think about as I head into the London winter.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

FATHERS AND SON by Ivan Turgenev

I went to an exhibit recently about 19th century Russian portraiture, and suddenly found a great gap looming in my knowledge of the western cannon. In the same breath as Tolstoy and Dostoevesky, the captions spoke of someone called Turgenev. Who is this Turgenev? I've never read any Turgenev! What am I missing?

Not a whole hell of a lot, based on FATHERS AND SONS. A young man, Akardy returns home from medical school with a friend, Bazarov, who he admires. Bazarov is a nihilist, and his disavowal of traditional Russian values is as thrilling to Arkady as it is horrifying to Arkady's parents. Bazarov meets a lovely young lady and a powerful struggle ensues between his hormones and his nihlism. Nihilism briefly triumphs, and then - just when he is beginning to regret this - he conducts an autopsy without careful enough hygiene. This is the nineteenth century, so he dies. Arkady meanwhile has been busy falling in love with the lovely young lady's sister, and due to his lower commitment to nihilism, and higher commitment to hygiene, he lives to marry her.

It actually sounds like a pretty good book in this summary, and I guess it was. It was the novel that really established the word 'nihilism,' and the character of Bazarov was hugely influential in the development of that idea. Perhaps it now seems rather tired and elderly simply because it created so very many imitators. Now, to a new reader, it seems like an imitation of something else; and that something else is itself. Now that people have truly given up on the idea of life having a meaning, Bazarov's early gestures in that direction seem a bit half-hearted. He's so full of ideas and hopes and passions that by our standards it's hardly nihilism at all. I can't decide whether or not to feel sad about this. I think perhaps I do.

Sunday, 14 August 2016


I have been avoiding this brief novel for years. I am not really sure why. It just sounds sort of stupid. Famously, the novel was a huge success in 18th century Europe, igniting a fashion for yellow waistcoats, and setting off the first recorded wave of copycat suicides in history, which led to its ban in many countries. Death is I guess the ultimate compliment you can pay a work of art but somehow I just figured the story would annoy me.

And it did annoy me. I mean, who kills themselves because the woman they love marries someone else? JUST HAVE AN AFFAIR. Or: RUN AWAY TO TAHITI. Or: JUST MEET SOMEONE ELSE. Having said that, it is a remarkable novel for the period - anything before 1750 or so can be hard-going (CLARISSA, for example. I thought this lengthy early novel would be an interesting challenge. Challenging, it is. Interesting, not so much.). Yet having said this, I recommend this book. It carries an air of extraorindarily contemporary freshness. Take this:
All learned schoolmasters and educators agree that children do not know why they want what they want, but that adults too, as well as children, stagger around on this earth,like them not knowing whence they come or whither they go, pursue true goals just as little as they, and are just as completely governed by biscuits and cakes and birch rods: nobody will believe that, and yet it seems to me palpable.
I am ready to grant - for I know what you would say to this - that the happiest are those who like children live for the day, drag their dolls around, dressing and undressing them, slink with bated breath about the drawer where Mama keeps the sweets locked up and, when they finally get hold of what they want, gobble it down by the mouthful and cry, "More!" - those are happy creatures. Happy are those too who give sumptuous titles to their shabby occupations, perhaps even to their passions, recommending them to the human race as gigantic operations contributing to man's salvatin and welfare!"
There's much of this kind. Much of the sweetness of death that is weirdly compelling, even today. I'm not sure I'm ready to kill myself, but I can see how someone might be.

MY SON, MY SON by Howard Spring

This is a novel about a man who is seriously hung up on his son. Set in the early part of the twentieth century, it's an interesting window into the pre-Wars world, and reminds me how extraordinarily lucky I am to be born now rather than then. Obviously first prize is not to be born female at all, but if you have to be, at least it should be today, when you have some hope of your dad actually caring about you.

The everyday sexism is not so surprising - that after meals the women always do the dishes while the men smoke their pipes - but I was taken aback at how frank the main character, William Essex, is about wanting a baby boy rather than a girl. Also suprising to me is his bizarre mini-romance when he is 35 with a 14 year old girl called Maeve, the daughter of his friend. Later, when Maeve is 22, he falls in lust with her friend Livia, and then is surprised when this young woman prefers his teenage son to his elderly self. The son is very upset with his father, and runs away with Livia. He later dumps her for Maeve, and Maeve becomes pregnant. In one of the WTF moments so common in books of this period, Maeve then kills herself. By this point I had begun to get the swing of the general misogyny, so I was not surprised to find that the central character regards this as quite understandable and indeed even commendable.

There is also some stuff about the Irish Revolution, which I didn't quite follow, never having really understood that conflict.

In writing this I've come to realise that apparently I didn't really like this book at all. However I did finish all 578 pages, so it can't have been that bad. Also, I only bought three books on vacation so didn't have much choice. There was some funny writing, so let's end on this little snippet from Chapter 1, back when I thought I might still like this book:
What a place it was, that dark little house that was two rooms up and two down, with just the scullery thrown in! I don't remember to this day where we all slept, though there was a funeral now and then to thin us out.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

NEW GRUB STREET by George Gissing

This is a book about struggling young artists, and in my opinion it is totally authentic, because it's main focus is on money.

Not, obviously, on having money, but on not having it. It's probably the most money-focused book I've ever read; far more than many about bankers, or artistocrats. That's because one of the best things about having money is that you don't have to think about money. The writers in this book discuss Greek poetry, and plotlines, and publication, but they spend far more time on where you can get a loaf of bread for a half a pence less, and what makes a shirt collar last, and how long you will live if you pawn your overcoat in November vs December. My key take-away: damn the Edwardian era was tough. Struggling artists in those days really know how to STRUGGLE. Also, side bar: thank god for the NHS.

Overall, it's a grim story, in which an idealistic young writer, who wants to do good work, ends up impoverished, and dead, while a hack, who acknowledges what he writes is rubbish, and who reluctantly (and yet enthusiastically) marries for money ends up happy and fulfilled. There a clear strong sense of the inevitability of the triumph of pragmatism, and the foolishness of aspiration. A sobering read.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara

This novel drips shortlists and rave reviews from quality papers, and probably deserves them all. It starts off as a story of four friends from college all trying to make it, mostly in the arts. This was my favourite part of the novel, capturing early adulthood wonderfully well. Here's a description of a restaurant where one of them, an aspiring actor, works:
Not everyone who waited at Ortolan was an actor. Or to be more precise, not everyone at Ortolan was still an actor. . . . It was easy to tell who at Ortolan was once an actor and was now a career actor . . . Acting was like a war, and they were veterans: they didn't want to think about the war, and they certainly didn't want to talk about it with naifs who were still eagerly dashing toward the trenches, who were still excited to be in-country. . . How did you know when it was time to give up? . . . Was it when you got fat, or bald, or got bad plastic surgery that couldn't disguise the fact that you were fat and bald? When did pursuing your ambitions cross the line from brave into foolhardy? How did you know when to stop? In earlier, more rigid, less encouraging (and ultimately, more helpful) decades, things would be much clearer: you would stop when you turned forty, or when you got married, or when you had kids, or after five years, or after ten years, or fifteen. And then you would go get a real job, and acting and your dreams for a career in it would recede into the evening, a melting into history as quiet as a briquette or ice sliding into a warm bath.

But these were days of self-fulfillment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble. Somewhere, surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.
This gives a feel of the energy and fun of the novel, and will doubtless make painful reading for those who spent any part of their twenties in variously the fine arts, fashion, or media.

Slowly the book turns more to focus on one of the friends, a character called Jude. He has had a very tough childhood, and we start to veer dangerously close to misery memoir. There are pages and pages on self harm, on suicide attempts, and so forth. At some point you wonder at what point it is okay to go from being sorry to being annoyed. That said, I read all 800 some pages in two or three days, so clearly the author's doing something right. Especially appealing I think is the creation of a particular world, which I'm very familiar with - a big city kind of life, that is lived without a lot of the ordinary accoutrements of adulthood (children, mortgages, etc) - that I don't think is very represented yet, in the literature. I looked up the author (who interestingly, given that the book is almost entirely about gay men, is a woman) and I see this was in her mind as she wrote it. Here she is, on her characters:
None of them are legally married or have kids, and this book is also meant to be a homage to a different kind of adulthood, one that isn’t often celebrated in fiction, but which is adulthood nonetheless. An adulthood in which there is a primacy of friendship. It exists perhaps particularly in New York, where people have come to erase their past to a degree in a family of like-minded people. The 20th century was all about romance, but that is quite a recent idea. Friendship is perhaps a purer relationship, I think.
I've thought for a while that the lives of many people I know are based very much on friends and housemates rather than parents and children, and it's interesting how little represented this is in arts and media. Well done A LITTLE LIFE, for giving us what's presumably the first of many such stories.

Saturday, 4 June 2016


Of this novel, his first, Baldwin said "MOUNTAIN is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else. I had to deal with what hurt me most. I had to deal with my father."

And he certainly odes deal with his father. Big time. The novel takes place during a single all-night church service during which the 14 year old John (i.e., James Baldwin) gives his heart to Jesus. The novel dips in and out of the memories of all of his family, covering everything from his grandmother, who was a freed slave, to his mother and aunt and of course, his father, who though a lay preacher is essentially the novel's monster. It's unclear if John's conversion is a submission to, or victory over, the man.

Baldwin has a dark view of family life, and every relationship is complicated and unhappy. The freed slave woman, for example, is mostly pictured as a burden her daughter can't wait to escape: it's frighteningly unsentimental.

It's also remarkably written. It's full of the Bible. Here he is on Broadway: "And certainly perdition sucked at the feet of the people who walked there: and cried in the lights, in the gigantic towers; the marks of Satan could be found in the faces of the people who waited at the doors of the movie houses; his words were printed on the great movie posters that invited people to sin. It was the roar of the damned that filled Broadway, where motor-cars and buses and the hurrying people disputed every inch with death. Broadway: the way that led to death was broad, and many could be found thereon; but narrow was the way that led to life eternal, and few there were who found it."

It's a great novel, showing what can happen at that wonderful point where poetry and self-help converge.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

THE CHRYSALIDS by John Wyndham

John Wyndham is famous for DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, a terrific novel that if you haven't read you ought to. It's about alien plants aiming to take over the world: you know you want to. I've been thinking about it often this spring, because frankly all this fecundity in April has its creepy side.

Anyway, THE CHRYSALIDS I read is contained in a charming old hardback called THE JOHN WYNDHAM OMNIBUS and is a charming old post-nuclear-apocalypse novel. It begins in the best tradition of such books with some children sweetly playing together only to uncover a horrible truth . . . that one of them has six toes. This is horrible because ever since 'Tribulation' humanity has been trying to claw its way back to purity and exterminate any mutant strains. Awesome. As often with such novels we have fun with the theme but it does not quite develop into a successful plot, but who cares. It did make me think that it's interesting we are today so relatively unafraid of nuclear holocaust. There's no reason to be less afraid - indeed we should be more, as nuclear power moves into non-state hands - but I guess it's hard to keep up an appropriate level of terror in the long term.

The third novel in the OMNIBUS was THE KRAKEN AWAKES, which I liked too. It reminded me of my dad, who always used to greet me with that when I woke up late on a weekend. I never knew where it came from. Dad did love a good mid twentieth century scifi, and so do I.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

MORT by Terry Pratchett

My inability to entertain myself is probably getting close to abnormal. I was recently in Rome and ran out of reading matter just before we were about to travel back to London. Panic! What will I do? Think my own thoughts? What a horrible prospect. So I looked through the Kindle app on my travelling companion's iPad and found a bunch of books by an author who I loved as a teenager - Terry Pratchett, which included my old favourite MORT.

MORT is the story of an awkward young man who cannot find an apprenticeship in his own village and so agrees to become an apprentice to an athropomorphic entity representing DEATH. So he learns the scythe carrying, and the hour glass wrangling, and so forth and so on . . . never mind: the fun of Terry Pratchett is not in the plot, which is always a bit half-hearted. It's not the destination, or even the journey, it's more the scenery. As for example when Mort is looking at a rock: "It had curly shells in it, relics of the early days of the world when the Creator had made creatures out of stone, no one knew why."

It got me to London, anyway.

HEARTBURN by Nora Ephron

This book is a comic retelling of the end of the author's second marriage. As she says in the introduction: " . the book you're about to read . . is often referred to as a thinly disguised novel. I have no real quarrel with this description, even though I've noticed, over the years, that the words 'thinly disguised' are applied mostly to books written by women. Let's face it, Philip Roth and John Updike picked away at the carcasses of their early marriages in book after book, but to the best of my knowledge they were never hit with the thinly disguised thing." It's true, this mid-twentieth century generation of novelists seem to have been obsessed with their exes: our current easy-come-easy-go relationship to marriage doesn't seem to provide quite the same grist for the novelistic mill.

HEARTBURN is a light-hearted story, though a little gimmicky for my taste, with receipes included throughout as part of the plot. I think the actual divorce must have been awful: she had a two year old and was seven months pregnant when she found out her husband was not just having sex with someone else but actually in love with her. As she says: "I've managed to convert an event that seemed to me hideously tragic at the time to a comedy - and if that's not fiction, I don't know what is."

I also enjoyed the setting - it's New York among the monied classes in the 1970s, so everyone is eating souffle and out to out-anecdote everyone else. Overall though I found the book a little forgettable, and felt like it would be better on screen, as the best thing about it was the dialogue and the set pieces (e.g., falling into a seal pond). Then I realised Nora Ephron was in fact a screenwriter. Extra points if you know a movie she wrote. (I'll date myself with a clue: Men and women can't be friends . . .)

Monday, 9 May 2016

THE KINDNESS by Polly Samson

THE KINDNESS moves around a lot in time. This is not an easy thing to do, and Samson does not manage it. We see a relationship's beginning from its ending, and etc etc. Done well, this adds mystery and excitement. Done poorly, it just removes all narrative tension. So - yup. The main character, a man, is drunk and alone in his house reflecting on his failed marriage and the last days he had with his daughter who has some kind of unnamed terrible terminal illness. British authors do love a good childhood terminal illness. The book is described as a thriller, and guess what's supposed to be thrilling: apparently the child is not dead. The husband is just so upset with his wife that he decides to cut off both her and HIS OWN CHILD. Then at the end the child as a teenager comes to reconcile with the father and I guess it's supposed to be redemptive. In fact what happens is that you feel like the central character is sort of silly, and you hope this is not really the big reveal. But actually it is.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

YES PLEASE by Amy Poehler

I feel bad to say it but this book made me like Amy Poehler a little less.

The early section, where she talked about her childhood (blissful) and her struggle to get into comedy (inspirational in retrospect) was interesting. But the lengthy last part, about her current famous self was sort of dull. Maybe this is because I do not really know how famous Amy Poehler is, and do not really know her famous friends. Thus anecdotes about how much she laughed backstage eating burritos with Will Arnett, whoever he is, leaves me cold.

Also deeply unfortunate is a part where she goes to Haiti. I know it's not very kind, but I include a picture she puts in her book - apparently without irony - that shows you how she thought about that experience.

In the preface, she talks about how hard it was to write the book, and shares her struggle as to what should go in it:
"In this book there is a little bit of talk about the past. There is some light emotional sharing. I guess that is the 'memoir' part. There is also some 'advice', which varies in its levels of seriousness. Lastly, there are just essays, which are stories that usually have a beginning and an end, but nothing is guarantted."
And perhaps that's a bit the problem. I'm not sure you should write a book, if you're not quite ready to put yourself in it. Though perhaps I'm judging her against a ludicrously high bar, of Proust and Knausgaard - but then, if you set out to write a memoir, that's just who the competition is.

It's probably best if she sticks to screenplays. Because despite the book I continue to like her shows, and I love that her and Tina Fey are writing and making movies with women as central characters. And some bits of the book were to me inspirational, not least her ability to claim confidence as her right. Let's end on an inspirational note, from Poehler: "I believe great people do things before they are ready. This is America and I am allowed to have a healthy self esteem"

So perhaps she wrote the book before she was ready, but perhaps that's not such a bad thing.

SOME RAIN MUST FALL by Karl Ove Knausgaard

SOME RAIN MUST FALL is Book 5 of 6, and as with the others nothing happens. Yet somehow you can’t stop reading, and when it’s over you feel awfully sad and lonely.

I pity the poor blurb writer, who tries to give it a plot, telling how the main character (i.e., the author) arrives at university “full of excitement and writerly aspirations. Soon though, he is stripped of youthful illusions. His writing is revealed to be puerile . . . and his social efforts are a dismal failure. Awkward in company and hopeless with women, he drowns his shame in drink and rock music.”

This is indeed sort of true, but also not true. It’s the kind of falsity that comes from trying to summarise any real life: imagine trying to summarise your own, even over a few years. It makes me feel sweaty just to consider it, an attempt to assign so much meaning. And Karl Ove has not attempted it. He tells us as usual his day by day, with us left to construct the story around it. It makes the books both boring and wonderful, much like real life.

He rarely steps out of his day to day, but here’s one time, which captures some sense of what I think he’s going for:
Once we were seventeen, once we were thirty-five, once we were fifty-four. Did we remember that day? 9 January 1997, when we went into REMA 1000 to do our shopping and came out again with a bag in each hand and walked down to the car, put the bags on the ground and unlocked the door, placed the bags on the back seat and got in? Beneath the darkening sky, by the sea, the forest behind, black and bare?
Or here talking about something else he refers to “. . .Life as it unfolded around me, with the trivial incidents that make up all lives and can suddenly shine bright in the dusk of meaninglessness; the door goes, she comes home, bends over and takes off her shoes . . ."

The early section has much to say on his issues with masturbation (I had mercifully forgotten about this problem) and the various horribly embarrassing social situations he creates (though in this book he finally admits what I had guessed from his author photo, but would never have guessed from the way he writes about himself: he is good looking). I’m blown away once again by his picture of life in Scandinavia, which seems wildly improbable to a Zimbabwean: his life story does not involve at any point revolve around government decisions, and his choices are largely funded by the state. At one point he says Rome is the most chaotic place he’s ever been to. Can you imagine Western Europe being your bar for chaos?

This book ends where book 1 began, so I am assuming the last book, Book 6, will take us into the present day. I haven’t even begun it yet, as it’s not out in English, but I’ve already begun mourning its end.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

LIFE CLASS by Pat Barker

I'm not saying you can't write novels of the First World War, but I kind of also am saying that.

Barker makes a strong effort here - it's all there, the field hospital, the eyeballs swinging out of sockets, the deserter for execution, etc etc: but it's hard going when you're competing with ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, with ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH, with someone who was actually there. LIFE CLASS has rather the air of cups of tea in Notting Hill, and of strenuous and detailed imaginings.

The book is stronger the further away it is from the Front. It begins with young men and women at London's Slade art school, all agog with social change and the difficulties of working in charcoal. There's sexual tension galore that comes to abrupt halt with conscription. The main male character, Paul, works at a field hospital, where he slowly becomes friends with a sweet-hearted young recruit. I am sure you will not be aghast to learn what happens to the young recruit: what always happens to young recruits in WWI novels, and indeed what happened pretty often in WWI itself, i.e., death.

It was a pretty good book, so I don't know what I didn't enjoy more. Maybe it's just that the same story has been done so much better elsewhere: it couldn't help but suffer by comparison. The same book, but about soemthing else - say - Bonnie Prince Charlie, or the Lord's Resistance Army, or Brexit - might have been better.


I started reading this book in the glorious pre-pandemic days of one week ago when COVID was some Chinese problem.   It begins as a medi...