Sunday, 25 February 2018

A WHOLE LIFE by Robert Seethaler

Why is it that any book which tells the story of someone's life from beginning to end is always a sad book?  Even if the central character has a happy life, the story is somehow always still sad.  I guess it's because while you can win the battle - even all the battles - you can never win the war.  No matter how many dangers you dodge, or narrow escapes you manage, or serial killers you avoid over the course of a whole life, you're always dead at the end. 

This book tells the story of a life that didn't win that many battles, never mind the war.  It's about a man called Andreas who lives in a village in the German mountains.  He is orphaned, then abused by an uncle, then loses his wife to an avalanche, then gets conscripted into the army and is a prisoner of war, then comes home and lives alone in a shack.  And all the time you know he's just going to die at the end.

It's beautifully written, and wise, but really I found it annoying.  Perhaps this is because I am still young enough to be in rebellion against death in general.  But perhaps also it is because Andreas is so annoying.  He is the strong, silent, and apparently half-witted type, who recounts the various horrors he endures in a grating monotone.  Once, near the end of of his life he decides to leave his village on impulse, on the local bus, to see what is beyond his valley.  He has a panic attack in the car park and the bus driver has to help him home.  Perhaps I should feel sorry for him but really I'm just like: Get your shit together.  Honestly.   

Sunday, 11 February 2018

MEMOIRS OF AN INFANTRY OFFICER by Siegfried Sassoon

Regular readers may recall my reading of MEMOIRS OF A FOX HUNTING MAN, which was - astonishingly - about fox hunting.  You would have thought I would be well prepared for the second book in the trilogy, MEMOIRS OF AN INFANTRY OFFICER, to be about the Infantry, but I am not sure anyone can really be prepared for what Sassoon went through.  Here is a representative sample of his experience, as an officer in the first World War:
Shell-twisted and dismembered, the Germans maintained the violent attitudes in which they had died. The British had mostly been killed by bullets or bombs, so they looked more resigned. But I on remember a pair of hands (nationality unknown) which protruded from die soaked ashen soil like the roots of a tree turned upside down; one hand seemed to be pointing at the sky with an accusing gesture. Each time I passed that place the protest of those fingers became more expressive of an appeal to God in defiance of those who made the War.  Who made the War? I laughed hysterically as the thought passed through my mud-stained mind. But I only laughed mentally, for my box of Stokes-gun ammunition left me no breath to spare for an angry guffaw. . . . . Such sights must be taken for granted, I thought, as I gasped and slithered and stumbled with my disconsolate crew. Floating on the surface of the flooded trench was the mask of a human face which had detached itself from the skull.
I for sure was not prepared for this, and neither was Sassoon.  Particularly horrible is the periods when his regiment knows they must 'go over the top' at a certain time or date.    The majority of them know they will not survive it, and the waiting is almost more terrible to read about than the fighting itself.  

Sassoon is great at quickly describing a person, and it is unnerving how often he brings someone to life, only immediately to casually kill him (they did not survive to the Autumn . . I heard he died two weeks later . . etc).  It especially awful how many of them are just eighteen or nineteen.  He has huge admiration for the courage of his comrades, and his previous ideas as to class crumble quickly.  
As we entered it I noticed an English soldier lying by the road with a horribly smashed head; soon such sights would be too frequent to attract attention, but this first one was perceptibly unpleasant. At the risk of being thought squeamish or even unsoldierly, I still maintain that an ordinary human being has a right to be momentarily horrified by a mangled body seen on an afternoon walk, although people with sound common sense can always refute me by saying that life is full of gruesome sights and violent catastrophes. But I am no believer in wild denunciations of the War; I am merely describing my own experiences of it; and in 1917 I was only beginning to learn that life, for the majority of the population, is an unlovely struggle against unfair odds, culminating in a cheap funeral. Anyhow the man with his head bashed in had achieved theoretical glory by dying for his country in the Battle of Arras, and we who marched past him had an excellent chance of following his example.
We leave these MEMOIRS just when Sassoon is planning to publicly denounce the war in the newspaper, probably leading to his courtmartial.  He's furious at Generals who don't understand what they are asking of troops, at civilians, at churches, at anyone who speaks badly of the Infantry - even German infantry. I'm definitely going to read the next book; he looks like he is going to survive the war - the question for me is how he manages to survive the peace.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

CHERRY by Mary Karr

This is a story of a wild adolescence in Texas.  The most interesting part was about sex.  Perhaps this is unsurprising.  But what surprised me was that it was about a girl wanting to have sex. There was a lot of crushes, and dates, and deflowering.  It made me realise how rarely one reads about women wanting sex.  I have read so very very many books about male desire (Roth's PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT; Miller's appalling TROPIC OF CANCER); and suddenly reading this one I was aware of how little I'd read about women.  I can't believe i never really noticed this before.  No wonder men so often think we're not up for it.

Less interesting was the extensive drug experimentation.  Writing about tripping is as dull as writing about your dreams, but druggies rarely seem aware of this.  Even recovering addicts, whose books are all about how drugs destroyed their lives, often have the idea that it is interesting for you to hear about this time a kitten turned into a flower.   This book has lots of that, so I mostly skipped those bits.  I felt a bit bad; I always feel bad when I find memoirs boring, because they are the actual story of someone's life.  No doubt, we all think we are interesting.

I was also a little annoyed by the author's clear conviction that she had a tough childhood.  There is lots in here about how awful small town Texas was, which is a little hard to take.  She had two parents and a car and a free public school to go to.  It's not exactly Darfur.

I did find one great piece of wisdom in this book.  I do on some level read to learn, and I didn't exactly expect this book to be a source of profound insight.  But here it is; the advice of the girl's mother on competing with other girls:  YOU JUST HAVE TO BE SMARTER THAN THOSE WHO ARE PRETTIER, AND PRETTIER THAN THOSE WHO ARE SMARTER.

If I ever have a daughter, I'm giving that to her as a crossstitch sampler the year she turns thirteen.

(If interested, I recall I have also read another book by Karr, about her descent into alcoholism - LIT)

THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS by Isabel Allende

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...