Sunday, 30 September 2018

SYLVESTER by Georgette Heyer

Yes I read another one.  I should have been reading 'modern classic' THE KINGDOM by Emmanuel Carrere, but honestly, what can you do?  Sometimes you just want to read trashy fun. 

REGENCY BUCK by Georgette Heyer

It is possible to buy Georgette Heyer books on Amazon, but this is not the right and proper place to buy them.  This one I bought in a dusty second hand book store.  Amazing.  It was even rainy at the time.  Wonderful.  I only went into the store to dry off my coat.  Ideal.  For bonus points, it was in the old Regency town of Lyme Regis (bonus points for you if you know what major Regency novel this town features in). 

Also note the edition.  Of late there has been an effort to republish Heyer with tasteful covers and quotes from respectable authors.  I don't begrudge this effort on the part of her estate to make money, but this is frankly not the right and proper way to read them.  You need old editions, with cover designs that just drip with contempt for the imagined female reader.  You also need a dusty, dodgy smell.  Suffice to say, this edition met these standards and then some. 

I used to read Heyer a lot as a teenager, but I only restarted in the last year or so.  I read this curled up in a bed in on holiday while it rained.  I won't bother to tell you what it's about, they're always about the same thing.  This  is not why you are reading it.  It's because when you look up at the end of the book, your afternoon has disappeared, and the rain has cleared. 

Sunday, 23 September 2018

NORMAL PEOPLE by Sally Rooney

I liked Rooney's first book CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS so much that after I finished reading it Ire-read it immediately  I don't like this one, her second, quite as much. That said, I started reading it at 11pm and then somehow forgot to stop.  I can't remember the last time I read a book in a single sitting, especially overnight.  So when I say I didn't like it quite as much, this is more a compliment to CONVERSATIONS than a commentary on NORMAL PEOPLE.

NORMAL PEOPLE tells the story of Marianne and Connell. They meet in high school, where she is wealthy but not popular, and he is the reverse.  He gets to know her because his mum is her mum's cleaner.  They start having sex, but he insists on keeping it secret, and eventually invites a girl who is always rather horrible to Marianne to the school dance.  Marianne does not take this well.  It sounds like the kind of drama that can happen in high school which is easy for adults to dismiss, but in this telling it is horrible and affecting, much like it is when this kind of thing actually happens to you in high school.  The pair split up and then meet again in college, and their relationship is off and on again over a number of years.  

There is a not very successful sub-plot about Marianne's abuse at the hands of her mother, much like the not very successful 'self harm' sub-plot in CONVERSATIONS.  I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that perhaps the author feels like we need some kind of damage to get us to care about a character.  The end also is not so very successful for me - it wants to be a happy ending, but somehow Rooney can't quite let it be. Whatever, these have got to be minor caveats because the fact remains I stayed up till 3am on it.  To tell you the truth, I was shocked when I looked at the clock, amazed that it had been four hours instead of five minutes.  

What I find particularly joyful about it I think is that Rooney is a young (twenty six!) and the book feels like a young person's book; and yet it is at the same time delightfully Victorian.  Unlike much modern writing, which feels itself superior to such boring antiques as plot, or character, here is a writer who clearly loves a narrative.  She describes for example how agitated Connell feels when he has to stop reading Austen's EMMA, and comments:
It feels intellectually unserious to concern himself with fictional people marrying each other. But there it is: literature moves him. One of his professors calls it the pleasure of being touched by great art.

Undoubtedly a pleasure I had from this book

EMPIRE FALLS by Richard Russo

This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002.  It's readable and engaging, but for a book that is not in fact that old it seems very elderly.  It is a straightforward slice of life of a divorced man in a small town, and is full of guilt about his mother, and a bitter ex-wife, and his love for his daughter and etc etc.  I didn't dislike it that much while reading it, but I guess in retrospect I sort of did.  It was a good display of a sort kind of narrative, but to my mind not much beyond that.  I didn't feel there was much new about it, in terms of ideas, or characters, or setting.  I wasn't sure what the point was, really.

I will make this minor sidepoint.  The author clearly thinks women in their forties are past it, and know themselves to be so, which is weird, and contributes to the dated feel not a little.  It reminded me of SEX AND THE CITY, which I caught on TV the other day.  There is a lot of emphasis about how if you are not married by thirty you are on the shelf, which seems laughable today.  I'm so glad I wasn't born any earlier. 

Sunday, 9 September 2018

A SORT OF LIFE by Graham Greene

I am not quite sure why it is I like Graham Greene's novels so much.  If his novels are described - all tortured men in the mid-twentieth century - they don't sound like something I'm going to really enjoy.  Yet I  really do like them, almost more than I want to.  They're drenched, all of them, in guilt and regret.  This doesn't sound very appealing, I know, but somehow I always find them very consoling. There's some absence of judgement them, some generosity: like life's so incredibly hard, he's proud of you for just getting through it.  It's soothing. 

A SORT OF LIFE is the first installment of his autobiography, and tells the story of his own life up to his thirties or so. It made me understand him a little better.  First, for a man whose books feel so modern to me, in being so equivocal and undecided, he is older than I thought.  He was born 1905, and has a childhood of illnesses - measles (twice), pleurisy, appendicitis, etc: you wonder what his parents were doing, and then remember how very modern a miracle vaccination is.

He's miserable in school, and tells us how he used to play Russian Roulette with his brothers gun; how he cut himself; how he went to the dentist once and had a perfectly fine tooth removed just for the escape of the ether.  What's striking about all this is not so much the misery, but the way in which he tells us about it, pretty casually, and with no reference to how he obviously badly needs a ton of therapy.  I guess he lived  in that generation that saw both World Wars, and I can see from that perspective how you might need to do a little more than fool around with a gun before he thinks you have a real problem.

He's happier when he goes to university at Oxford, but then he has to leave.  He captures well a sentiment I think many people feel, but I have never seen written down so clearly:
Perhaps, until one starts, at the age of seventy, to live on borrowed time, no year will seem again quite so ominous as the one when formal education ends and the moment arrives for the whole future.
He finds employment at a newspaper, and then his first book is a success.  This is the beginning of failure, as he tells us in his cheery fashion; he quits his day job on the back of that first success, and thereafter writes two flops in a row.  He converts to Catholicism, and is much happier; but your heart breaks for him:  
The first general confession, which precedes conditional baptism, and which covers the whole of a man’s previous life, is a humiliating ordeal. Later we may become hardened in the formulas of confession and skeptical about ourselves: we may only half intend to keep the promises we make, until continual failure or the circumstances of our private life finally make it impossible to make any promises at all and many of us abandon confession and communion to join the Foreign Legion of the Church and fight for a city of which we are no longer full citizens. But in the first confession a convert really believes in his own promises. 
That 'circumstances of our private life' is very interesting.  He's married by now, and manages somehow to write a very personal memoir without telling us a thing about his wife.  This is however exactly what I am gagging to know all about, as his novels are all about bad marriages and affairs that you regret.  You just know that's super juicy and that's why he's not telling you a thing about it.

I wouldn't like you to think the whole thing is glum. There is lots to delight. He tells us about his dogs - his "Pekinese, passionate about dustbins;" about his fun in Sierra Leone - "I remember a glorious day in Freetown in 1942 when I closed the windows of my little office and slaughtered more than three hundred flies in a timed four minutes."  And of course the prose is lovely and lucid.  Try this fabulous description of a bar, also in Freetown, but to be found all over the world:
Like the bar of the City Hotel in Freetown which I was to know years later it was the focal point of failure, a place undisturbed by ambition, a place to be resigned to, a home from home.
One interesting point about Greene was that he lived in Clapham, where I live now, and I go past his house with its blue plaque very often.  I also spent quite some time in Sierra Leone, as did he.  I imagine the Venn diagram of those who've lived off the Common and in Salone also is fairly small, and I am privileged to share it with him.  I'm definitely going to order the next installment.

STANDARD DEVIATION by Katherine Heiny

If there is one thing you can usually rely on commercial fiction for, it is a plot.  In exchange for this, you get some schmaltz and lazy thinking.  Sometimes you waver and think, oh well, let's read this, at least it will be entertaining.  Thus, my impulse purchase of STANDARD DEVIATION, whose cover quote from Nigella Lawson told me everything I needed to know about it's level of ambition.

Unfortunately, STANDARD DEVATION is not like most commercial fiction.  Sentimentality, this it has.  Predictable self-discovery, yes.  Characters working too hard at being charming, yes.  Special needs children, definitely.   But narrative forward progress, no.

It was cynical and dull in equal measure.  Serves me right for deciding to waste my short life reading what I knew to be rubbish.

Friday, 7 September 2018

GOODBYE VITAMIN by Rachel Khong

I was okay with this book.  It is about a 30 year old who returns to look after her father who is ill as her own life is falling apart.  It's sweet and comic, despite the relatively dark subject matter, and other reviewers have liked it, but for me it was a bit meh.  

I think it was hurt  by the fact that I read it immediately after Andrew Sean Greer's Pulitzer-winning LESS, which is in many ways quite similar but somehow much, much better.  It's like how you would be impressed by a skater scoring 8 until you see the skater scoring 10.  

And there are some true 10/10 lines.  Try this, on her ex-boyfriend, who left her for someone else, someone he then more or less immediately married: "You know what else is unfair, about Joel? That I loosened the jar lid, so somebody else could open him up.” 

No disrespect then to Rachel Khong: it's hard to get a first novel published, and harder to get it reviewed well in the New York Times.  Winning the Pulitzer can happen next.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

TALENTED MR RIPLEY by Patricia Highsmith

I read this book on a first generation Kindle in a tent in Yellowstone.  It is absorbing enough to help me forget the cold and the mysterious interior condensation.  It's  a lot gayer than the movie, as far as I remember.  Written in 1955, it remains shockingly sharp and contemporary feeling.  It also very much checks its morality at the door; I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was so judgment free. It tells the story of a man who murders his way into a substantial fortune, and gets away with it.

It manages the difficult trick of making you root for the sociopath, not least because the victims are all people who inherited their money.  It's hard to feel they deserve the money, so you don't care when they lose it.  At least they don't deserve it anywhere near as much as the sociopath, who is at least willing to kill for it.  The best part is that not only does he not get caught, he doesn't suffer any guilt over what he's done either.  A model for all of us.

Bonus important author biographical information:  Apparently Patricia Highsmith was a miserable misanthrope, who once bought a head of lettuce with a hundred snails on it in her handbag to a cocktail party, saying they were her companions for the evening.  Amazing. 

LESS by Andrew Sean Greer


It's not every day a book gets passionately recommended in the Whatsapp group of my high school friends.  But then LESS is not an everyday book.  Sometimes books just deserve to win all this prizes.  This is one, and it has.  Or at least the Pulitzer, which is all you need.  It's a coming of age story, and the age that's coming is middle age. 

It tells the story of Arthur Less, a writer who is approaching a difficult round-number birthday, and is working to get over the end of his relationship with a much younger man.  

The story is sweet, and sad, and very funny.  Arthur is a lovely creation  - on the phone ("frenetically dialing like a man decoding a bomb"); leaving a cab ("fumbling the tip and leaping out as from a hostage situation"); letting his mind wonder during a talk (" . . . feels his mind drifting away like a spaceman from an airlock, off into the asteroid belt of his own concerns.")  But everything in the book is beautifully conceived.  Here, randomly, camels:
What does the camel love?  I would guess nothing in the world.  Not the sane that scours her, or the sun that bakes her, or the water she drinks like a teetotaller.  Not sitting down, blinking her lashes like a starlet.  Not standing up, moaning in indignant fury as she manages her adolescent limbs.  Not her fellow camels, to whom she shows the disdain of an heiress forced to fly coach.  Not the humans who have enslaved her.  Not the oceanic monotony of the dunes.  No the flavourless grass she chews, then chews again, in a sullen struggle of digestion.  Not the hellish day.  Not the heavenly night.  Not sunset. Not sunrise. Not the sun or the moon or the stars.  And surely not the heavy American, a few pounds overweight but not bad for his age . . . 
It's not just funny though, but also wise.  Silly situations tend lyrical. Here for example is Arthur in the airport, frustrated that once again he has failed to get back his VAT despite having filled out all the forms:
How awful for the string of inequities to be brought out in his mind, that useless rosary, so he can finger again those memories; the toy phone his sister received while he got nothing, the B in chemistry because his exam handwriting was poor, the idiot rich kid who got into Yale instead of him,the men who chose hustlers and fools over innocent Less, all the way up to his publisher's polite refusal of his latest novel and his exclusion from any list of best writers under thirty, under forty, under fifty—they make no lists above that.  The regret of Robert.  The agony of Freddy.  His brain sits before its cash register again, charging him for old shames as if he has not paid before.  He tries but cannot let it go.  It is not the money, he tells himself, but the principle.  He has don’t everything right, and they have conned him once again.  It is not the money.  And then, after he passes Vuitton, Prada, and clothing brands based on various liquors and cigarettes, he admits it to himself at last: It is indeed, the money. 

SPOILER ALERT It ends happily, in a way that involves the much younger man.  I don't think I could have handled it for it to end in any other way.  You can always tell I like a book when my blog post is nothing  but extracts.  Let's end with him with the much younger man:

He kisses – how do I explain it?  Like someone in love.  Like he has nothing to lose.  Like someone who has just learned a foreign language and can only use the present tense and only the second person.  Only now, only you.

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...