Sunday, 28 January 2018

TIES by Domenico Starnone

This is a fine novel, translated from the Italian, about a man who leaves his wife and children for a graduate student twenty years his junior.  Eventually he gives her up and goes back to them.  In many stories this would be a story about a mistake that ends in redemption.  TIES is the reverse.  The affair is the redemption; and returning to the wife and small children is the mistake.  The novel is set some thirty years after the affair,  and we see how both husband and wife's lives have been wasted; the one in staying in a relationship in which he is not truly interested; the other, in dishing out revenge on a daily basis for decades.    Sometimes being happy takes courage.

Affairs are rarely positive in fiction, which is I think interesting.  Does this reflect life?  Or does this reflect a morality we wish applied to life?  In any case, TIES is an unusual and very excellent upending of the traditional story.  It made me wonder what is going on in Italian fiction.  It reminded me of the remarkable Italian author Elena Ferrente, and her novel DAYS OF ABANDONMENT, which tells a similar story from the wife's perspective (and very similar; Naples, elderly upstairs neighbour, smallish children).  Then you guys I googled it and, Starnone and Ferrante are not just both Italian authors, and not just both from Naples, and not just both married, but they are married to each other.   This somehow confounds me.  What a strange joint literary project.  I don't know why, but I find it kind of sleazy.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

THE ADVERSARY by Emmanuel Carrere

This is a French true crime novel.  Why am I reading it?  Who knows.  I can't even remember where I found it.  I do love true crime TV, but am typically too embarrassed to be buying true crime fiction.  Perhaps it being French gave it a veneer of respectability.  Anyway, I'm glad I read it, because it tells of a truly fascinating and bizarre crime.  Actually, the crime itself is not so fascinating, or bizarre.  Some man kills his wife, children, and parents.  I mean in America this is hardly even a crime.  What makes it interesting is that the murderer, Jean-Claude Romonde, an apparently boring bourgeois family man, has been living a life of total deception before the murders for almost twenty years.  It takes some going for the mass murder you commit to be the least interesting part of your life story.

It all starts in his second year at University, where he oversleeps and misses his last exam.  Instead of just retaking the exam, he decides to pretend he has passed.  He continues to pretend to his friends that he is a student, and to buy books, and study, and walk around the hospital, for the next five years, until he 'graduates' with the rest of them.  He marries his college sweetheart, and moves on to pretending he is a high profile doctor at the WHO.  In fact, he just goes to their lobby and sits there for a bit, before going to sleep in a lay-by.  Then he goes home.  And he does this for twenty years!  Sometimes he pretends to go on a business trip, checking into the airport hotel for a few days, and reading the guide book for where he is supposed to be.   

He also does a lot of 'investing' for his family and friends - in fact, just stealing their money to fund his lifestyle of daytime napping.  So for years he knows that the whole thing must come to an end at some point.  When it does - when someones asks for their money back - he responds by killing everybody + the family dog.  I mean, wow.


Mindy Kaling begins this book by answering a few questions: 
This sounds okay, but not as good as Tina Fey's book.  Why isn't this more like Tina Fey's book?
It's true.  Tina Fey's book is much better.  So is Amy Schumer's.  Amy Poehler's on the other hand is much worse.   Why have I read books by pretty much all the female American comedians?  I don't know.  I wouldn't have even thought I cared about them as a group.  It's a bit like when Netflix's algorithm identifies a theme in shows you might be interested in, like  "shows with strong female leads" and it's the revelation of hangups you didn't even know you had.

In any case, perhaps the quality is not especially important. Here is another question: 
I don't know.  I have a lot of books already.  I wanted to finish those GIRL WITH A DRAGON TATTOO books before the movies come out.This book will take you two days to read.  Did you even seen the cover?  It's mostly pink.  If you're reading this book every night for months, something is not right.
This is also true.  I had terrible jet lag, so I read it in a day.   It was fun and perky.  I was struck by her confidence.  Most of her professional issues seem to come from over-confidence, which is really unusual for a woman. 

The main thing however I will remember from this book is the description of one great truth which, in a lifetime of reading, I have never before seen described in writing.  This was the chapter entitled "Why Do Men Put On Their Shoes So Slowly?" A profound question.  Sample:

Why do all the men I know put their shoes on incredibly slowly? When I tie my shoelaces I can do it standing, and I’m out the door in about ten seconds. (Or, more often, I don’t even tie my shoelaces. I slip my feet into my sneakers and tighten the laces in the car.) But with men, if they are putting on any kind of shoe (sneaker, Vans, dress shoe), it will take twenty times as long as when a woman does it. It has come to the point where if I know I’m leaving a house with a man, I can factor in a bathroom visit or a phone call or both, and when I’m done, he’ll almost be done tying his shoes. 
There’s a certain meticulousness that I notice with all guys when they put their shoes on. First of all, they sit down. I mean, they need to sit down to do it. Right there, it signals, “I’m going to be here for a while. Let’s get settled in.” I can put on a pair of hiking boots that have not even been laced yet while talking on my cell phone, without even leaning on a wall.

This topic, of men taking forever to put their shoes on, is one I have wondered at many times myself, but I thought it was just me.  Now having read this, and then googled it (do this, there is an incredible number of hits on this topic), I am only amazed that men have time to run the patriarchy.  I really don't know how they squeeze it in.  Maybe this is why powerful men tend to wear loafers.

Sunday, 21 January 2018


I was surprised to find that this book, MEMOIRS OF A FOX-HUNTING MAN, is mostly about fox hunting.  I am not too sure why I thought that the title was going to be metaphorical, like maybe the fox was going to be happiness or something, but  I can report the fox is definitely an actual fox.  Sassoon really liked hunting, and thinks (perhaps justifiably) that those people buying books about fox-hunting might like it too.  And want to read about it in great detail.

Aside from the majority of the content, I quite enjoyed this book.  Sassoon is a lovely writer, and I love a good memoir.  Here's the first line: 
My childhood was a queer and not altogether happy one.
You and everybody, Siegfried.  But there follows a lovely few hundred pages of clear, unfussy prose, such as is rare to find and a joy to read.   It's simplicity that requires great skill.  Initially I struggled with some class-based rage.  Sassoon has a medium size unearned income.  He thus enjoys spending his twenties hunting (four days a week in the winter) and playing cricket (four days a week in the summer).  He has a fabulous time with his "friends" Stephen and Dick.  (I have not wikipedia-ed him, but he is for SURE gay).  He is rather exceeding his income, as horses are apparently expensive, so his guardian tries to interest him in reading law, but he reacts with horror at the idea of being trapped in a London office.  You and everybody, Siegfried.  

When the First World War comes he signs up.  The book takes an abrupt and terrible turn.  After pages of hounds and horses and hunting calls we have, in a conversation on signing up: 
It may be inferred that he had no wish that I should be killed, and that . . . but he would have regarded it as a greater tragedy if he had seen me shirking my responsibility.  To him, as to me, the War was inevitable and justifiable. Courage remained a virtue. And that exploitation of courage, if I may be allowed to say a thing so obvious, was the essential tragedy of the War, which, as everyone now agrees, was a crime against humanity.
It's a neck-snapping change of pace and environment.   If Sassoon for the first two hundred pages seems strangely childish and idealistic, with what reads to us today as a rather babyish respect for tradition and authority, he grows up fast. His friends and 'friends' start to die, and he goes through a phase of wanting to die too; as he puts it, if a man  "laid down his life for his friends it was no part of his military duties."  You know things are bad when someone starts to talk about what 'a lovely train' the 5.30 from Paddington used to be.  Truly, I can't imagine how bad things would have to get for a Londoner to reminisce fondly about their commute.  

Sassoon gets to go home on leave, and sits surrounded by paintings of his horses, realising that his "past is beginning to wear a bit thin."  Apparently the next book is MEMOIRS OF AN INFANTRY OFFICER. I'm going to try it.  I expect much information about Infantry Officers.   

THE HISTORY OF PENDENNIS by William Makepeace Thackeray

This book is a mix of cheerful meandering and remarkable bleakness.  It is, apparently, more or less a telling of the author’s own life, and despite it being a story of mostly success and getting the girl, it made me feel rather sorry for him.  It’s remarkable how much of the book is about disillusionment, about loss, things not being what you thought they were, and success being mostly a matter of luck.  Here’s the last paragraph:
If the best men do not draw the great prizes in life, we know it has been so settled by the Ordainer of the lottery. We own, and see daily, how the false and worthless live and prosper, while the good are called away, and the dear and young perish untimely, — we perceive in every man's life the maimed happiness, the frequent falling, the bootless endeavour, the struggle of Right and Wrong, in which the strong often succumb and the swift fail: we see flowers of good blooming in foul places, as, in the most lofty and splendid fortunes, flaws of vice and meanness, and stains of evil; and, knowing how mean the best of us is, let us give a hand of charity to Arthur Pendennis, with all his faults and shortcomings, who does not claim to be a hero, but only a man and a brother.
I hope that’s not how I would ever end my memoirs. 

It’s been a while since I’ve adventured a really large Victorian, and it was cosy to be back in their verbose but orderly world.   I was having the full Alan Bennett experience
The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours
But it kept being disrupted when Thackeray insisted on letting me know he was not holding my hand.  He would occasionally make it clear he was writing to a male reader. Apparently ‘we’ must find ways to deal with women, and ‘we’ don’t know what women think, and so forth and so on.  I guess Thackeray’s been dead two hundred years, so it makes no odds now, but I’m sorry he didn’t think I was among the ‘we’.
I also had to laugh at how heavily he emphasized the lesson learnt by young Pendennis, which was – don’t be overconfident – after he made some bad choices at univesity.  He made it sound like that was a general lesson it would do us all good to absorb.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that’s not typically a female problem.

This was apparently written right after VANITY FAIR, and it is not a book that comes within a country mile of that one; but I enjoyed it.  Not quite managing to match up to your own masterpiece is a problem we all should be so lucky as to have.  


Here is a book packed with all sorts of things.  It tells the story of three generations of a family in an unnamed South American countr...