Saturday, 14 December 2019

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 country (i.e., Chile).  It is packed with incident.  Take this account of the pets:
Among that entire domestic fauna, the only one to have any importance in the collective memory of the family was a rabbit Miguel had once brought home, a poor ordinary rabbit that the dogs had constantly licked until all its hair fell out and it became the only bald member of its species, boasting an iridescent coat that gave it the appearance of a large-eared reptile.
The rabbit is never mentioned again.  Also why were the dogs licking it so much? No one knows.  The book is full of stuff like this.  Someone dies, and here is the response:

"You can bury her now," I said.  "And while  you’re at it, I added, you might as well bury my mother-in-law’s head.  It’s been gathering dust down in the basement since God knows when."

I mean: ?

It makes for a strangely absorbing, and very dense book, full of characters and ideas.  It covers about a hundred years from the  late 1800s up to a unnamed dictator's rise (i.e., Pinochet).  From a Zimbabwean perspective, I note once again how glad I am to have only a relatively inefficient dictatorship.  Apparently you can really torture a lot people once you get organized.

It was mostly enjoyable for its lush bizarreness, but I did enjoy this perspective on why it can sometimes be better not to actually get to be with the one you love:

Blanca preferred those furtive hotel rendezvous with her lover to the routine of everyday life, the weariness of marriage and the shared poverty at the end of every month, the bad taste in the mouth on waking up, the tedium of Sundays, and the complaints of old age .  .  . Perhaps she feared the grandiose love that had stood so many tests would not be able to withstand the most dreadful test of all: living together. 

Sunday, 24 November 2019

BERTA ISLAS by Javier Marias

Apparently Marias is an acclaimed Spanish author, and a likely Nobel winner.  All I can say, based on the evidence of this one novel, is that he sure knows how to make a spy story boring. 

This lengthy novel is broadly about a woman waiting for husband to return from his forays into espionage.  It might have been interesting as a novella.  I would like it to have been cut by about 90%, including 100% of all gratuitous TS Eliot references.  I did not get to the end of it, and I don't usually blog novels I don't finish, but after the 300+ pages I did get through I guess I have an opinion.  

On the cover, The Independent asks: "Sentence by glorious sentence, is there a better novelist alive in Europe now than Javier Marias?"  For me, I guess the answer is yes

THE BURIED GIANT by Kazuo Ishiguro

A very odd book about how hard it is to forgive unless you forget.  It also includes dragons.

It's set (sort of) in an imagined Britain after the fall of the Roman empire.  An elderly couple set out on a journey to see a son they have not seen in many years.  The complication is that they can hardly remember him, or much else, as they and everyone they meet is affected by a strange forgetfulness.  There are some other complications too, including elderly knights, pixies, fanatical monks, and so on.

It has that sense of dread that fantasy novels usually have, the idea that 'something' is coming for you.  But the 'something' is not like Gollum, or a cenatur, or whatever; it is the past.  Or more specifically, the memory of the past.  The elderly couple are deeply in love, but there is a terrible sense that if they could remember everything they knew about each other, from a lifetime together, they would not be.

I found it bleak and depressing, despite the faeries and the dragons.  The basic message seemed to be: who would love anyone if they knew it all?   I mean, I am feeling it.  I get it.  This might perhaps be because I read most of it when I couldn't sleep in the very early hours in a hotel room in Luxembourg.  That's really a setting to make you consider what bad choices brought you there.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

STORY OF A MARRIAGE by Geir Gulliksen

In this novel a man is surprised to find that Pandora's box is full of bad things.

Horrifyingly, it is the story of the author's actual marriage.  It is TMI and yet strangely transfixing.  This guy is the editor of Karl Ove Knausgaard, and like him his novels are based on making his personal life public.  In this case he gives himself the project of trying to imagine his wife's affair from her perspective.  It's a premise both bold and stomach-churning.

This protaganist/author and his wife are both in relationships when they meet, and they leave their partners for each other.  The marry and have children and are pretty happy for ten years.  The husband is kind of titillated by the idea of his wife with other men, and likes to involve her in fantasies about this.  He also tells her their marriage is so strong that he feels she can be free to explore within their relationship.  It is all almost creepily modern, like so much about Scandinavia.  Then the wife starts to spend a lot of time with one of her colleagues at work, and all of this modernity goes straight to the wall, replaced with rage and jealousy.

He does kind of an interesting job trying to imagine what his wife thought, though some of it is very clearly a man imaging what women think.  E.g.: "He was taller than me, she'd noticed that immediately.".  It also has moments of unexpected comedy:
Paul Edvin and I were left to cultivate that male form of human interaction which involved giving each other brief lectures on one thing or another. 
But I think this lengthy extract from the end, when its practically over, will best capture what is most eyeball peeling about this book:
I am holding my penis, the thought occurs to her that she is seeing this for the last time, it goes white and then red then white then red again, I pull the foreskin back and forth, slowly at first and then faster, rhythmically, in a movement somehow disconnected from any other in the world.  Soon I'm just a man she has known, one that she lived intimately with, once in an earlier life.  She looks at my hand as it moves . .  in that unique way that resembles nothing else.  Well, yes, it resembles a body itching, a dog scratching behind its ear, its tail slapping rhythmically against the floor.  And that's it precisely, she thinks. I'm having a scratch, it'll soon be over, I'm trying to rid myself of a dreadful itch.  
Officially, more than I ever wanted to know about anyone's divorce.  And yet it was refreshing to find someone willing to be this honest about how wrong it all went, foreskin and all

Thursday, 14 November 2019

WORLD WAR Z by Max Brooks

This guy has spent a LOT of time thinking about zombies.  He reminds me of someone who has set themselves the task of making an entire cookbook using, say, guavas.  It is guavas stewed, guavas fried, guavas fricassed, but instead of guavas, zombies. 

I chose to read this book because of its amazing sub-title: AN ORAL HISTORY OF THE ZOMBIE WAR.  Let's face it that is sweet as hell and I wish I had thought of it.  Boldly, this book has no central character or continuous plot.  It presents a series of imagined interviews with people all over the world and different stages of the aforementioned zombie war.

I enjoyed his idea that one reason for the spread of the zombie virus was the large scale organ transplant tourism industry in China.  I was horrified to find that this is quite true: China has a thriving industry, and very short wait times, because China is removing organs from prisoners involuntarily (see here).  I can't believe it, but apparently it is true.  I can't quite think what to do with this information.  I guess I will start to take leaflets from the Falun Gong protestors outside the British Museum, for one thing, pathetically small though it is.

This view, of how societal issues today could let the zombies in was a theme throughout: there were false cures, and fake news, and unexpected nuclear wars.  Eventually humanity is saved when South Africa develops a plan to save only some people, leaving the rest as 'bait'.  This works, and is adopted globally, but is not pretty.  Horrifyingly there is much about how the zombies don't even die in water, so those who escape in submarines often surface to find themselves covered in the living dead. 

So all in all an uplifting read, reminding you that if nothing else, at least you're alive.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Friday, 25 October 2019

PLAY IT AS IT LAYS by Joan Didion

I chose this book for two reasons.

One, I wanted to read something by Didion, but couldn't face her most famous book, THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING because I feared the subject of recovering from her husband's death was too grim. I have lost my youthful ability to feel invincible while reading about death.

Two, Bret Easton Ellis, is on the back cover, saying "for a few decades,this was my favourite American novel .. revelatory."  Now usually I take a writer's recommendation of a book because I admire them. In this case it was morbid curiosity.  Let's be clear, Ellis is obviously a misogynist, and anyone who admires the drivel that is AMERICAN PSYCHO probably is too.  So how can it be that he admires a woman's book so much?  That's very unexpected.

Having read the book, it is fully to be expected.  It is about a lady who is so unhappy that she will agree to have sex with anyone, even if actively unpleasant.  Ideal for Ellis, it's no wonder he loves it. It's basically all the rape with none of the questions.

That said, I'm glad to have read it.  It's remarkably cleverly done, with fragments of chapters that go back and forth in time, evoking a mid-twentieth century Hollywood that is unnervingly believable, and cohering into the story of a woman's crumbling life.  But at least some men got to have sex with her on the way.  That's all that really matters.

EARLY WORK by Andrew Martin

I have been on a big re-reading kick recently.  It's not something I've ever been in to before, but all of a sudden: CALL ME BY YOUR NAME twice, CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS four times, and now EARLY WORK a second time.  

This is a book I really, really like, and even more the second time around.  With CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS, there is something in the way the way she structures the plot that I find strangely interesting, like a clock I could take apart.  This one, it's not so much the plot or the language or anything that I can say I so much admire. It's more there is something about it that feels deeply familiar.  As if it was written out of my own consciousness, in some creepy way.  I couldn't say why, as in theory the story has little to do with me, being about an American man making poor decisions about his love life.  But there you go, that's the mystery of literature.  

I find this to be so utterly true, from Alan Bennett's HISTORY BOYS:
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
Andrew Martin is not dead, in fact he is younger than me, but this is for sure how I feel about this book.

Friday, 18 October 2019

OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout

I dislike short stories, and especially good ones.  The whole point of a book is to get involved in something outside your own life, and a short story is just a tease.  It pulls you into a world and then jerks you out, so you get all the sad parts of reading (it's over) with very little of the good part (it's not over yet and I can leave my actual life whenever I like).  

So I was ready to dislike this 'novel in short stories' from the get-go.  But I didn't dislike it.  At least not very much.  I can see why it won the Pulitzer.  It has a compelling central character in Olive, who is a seventh grade teacher who is not particularly likeable.  (I suspect people in part enjoyed it as it is still unusual to have a woman be outright rude and difficult.)  

It also had a number of interesting stories - fragile romances, discoveries after death, etc, - though it all got a bit MIDSOMER MURDERS when you had to ask yourself: what goes on in this small town they are all over each other like rabbits.  That said, I hear this is true of small towns.  There is nothing else to do so you might as well have sex.  Let's all move to small towns!

THE CHILDREN ACT by Ian McEwan

This is a good novel which has got a better novel inside it, trying to get out.  

It tells the story of a judge who has to make a difficult decision about whether or not to allow a teenage boy to decline medical treatment because of his religious beliefs.  This is the good novel.  The better novel, the one that I wish had actually been written, is about the gentle meltdown the judge engages in as she weighs whether or not her apparently 'successful and happy' life is in fact at all successful or happy.  Her husband tells her he loves her but wants to have an affair so he can feel 'ecstasy' one last time before he dies.  This sounds pretty reasonable to me, but she takes it hard.

It is at this point that we got bogged down in the actual plot, which is all about this Jehovah's Witness teenager.  Things get very allegorical, and I wasn't into it.  Ian McEwan is obviously a gifted writer, but I'm not really sure where he was going with this one.

Side note, I got this from the same impressively multi-lingual Barcelona apartment bookcase I got this one from, and both were read on the same beach on the same day.  

A GOOD MAN IN AFRICA by William Boyd


I always thought of Boyd as a well-behaved and mildly dull English author.  This is because I only know his later works, I guess, because this novel, his first, suggests that he is in fact a badly behaved Nigerian.  Or at least he was four decades ago.
The book is about a minor diplomat in Ibadan in Nigeria, and covers a period during which his life implodes: he drinks too much, bungles a work thing, illegally disposes of a corpse, and gets gonorrhoea right when his boss's daughter is finally ready to get to it.  The book was criticised originally by some for being a bit too much of a farce.  To this I can only say: these people clearly haven’t been to Nigeria. 
Part way through reading the book I had to stop and google Boyd, which is how I found out he was indeed born and grew up in Nigeria.  I figured he must have be been, the book is too accurate (Note the cover design, however.  This person apparently thinks Nigeria is Kenya).  

I read an interesting interview with Boyd, where he said that despite his parents spending thirty years in Nigeria they, like other white West Africans never bought land or identified as Nigerian, so neither does he.  He even follows the embarrassing tradition of ‘fictionalizing’ the country with the name Kinjinjin  Why?!? No one ever does this for European countries.  However that said, it is still an astonishingly vivid picture of 1960s Nigeria, and especially of the small diplomatic world. One small diplomatic world in particular: that of Morgan Leafy.  He is an amazing anti-hero, and possibly my spirit animal.  He spends the entire novel seething.  In these days of ‘taking responsibility for your own experience,’ and ‘being positive,’ he reassures me that not everyone has it all sorted out.
Here he is, passing through a teenagers’ party, where there is a lot of slow dancing and groping: 
Morgan had never, never been to a party like that in his life, far less when he was their age, and the unjustness of it all made him tremble with inarticulate envy. 
And here he is after talking to his boss:
 .. you stinking little shit! he mouthed at Fanshawe’s retreating back.  He made twisted vampire claws with his hands and savaged the air in front of his face. 
So I see we are not all so very together.  Brilliant.  The world itself, while comic, is very bleak. Here is the ‘club’ where much of the action happens:
. . there were bar flies and bores, lounge-lizards and lechers.  Adulterers and cuckolds brushed shoulders in the billiard room, idle wives played bridge or tennis or sunbathed around the pool, their children in the care of nannies, their housework undertaken by stewards . . they gossiped and bitched, thought about having affairs and sometimes did, and the dangerous languor that infected the hot cloudless days set many a time-bomb ticking beneath their cosy, united nuclear families
Love it.  I found it a truly refreshing book.  Whereas I have sometimes wondered what the point of his other books were, this one had a lot of heart.  I don’t know quite what it was about. I guess, failure, and the special kind of pride of not accepting it, even if that leaves you looking like an idiot.



Wednesday, 2 October 2019

A LEGACY by Sybille Bedford

I picked up this novel, a Penguin classic, on a whim in a used store because Nancy Mitford (whose A PURSUIT OF LOVE I have probably read about five times) called it “. . . .”  I was surprised I’ve never heard of it, and, to tell you the truth, usually I would take that as a bad sign.  One rule of thumb you can generally take in deciding on what books to read is that forgotten classics have usually been forgotten for a reason. 

However, in the case of female writers, that reason is that they are female.  So I gave it a whirl.

A LEGACY is a lightly fictionalized account of the author’s parents’ life.  Being she was born in 1911 to a German father and an English mother, with a Jewish extended family, it is also a rather sad window into how interconnected Europe was before a couple of apparently quite pointless wars.  For me the best part was her evocation of this lost world.  Here she is on her aristocratic grandparents in rural Germany:
They played music like craftsmen, and made objects like artists. One went to Cremona; learnt; and became known as an amateur lute-builder. Some contributed works of ornithology, some botanized. In their time several had experimented with alchemy, and my father’s grandfather had been fascinated by steam. Physics held no terrors then and the laws of the universe were something a man might deal with pleasantly in a workshop set up behind the stables. 
For an undilutedly Catholic family, few had entered the church, and of these most had remained country abbes. The French Revolution was still alive with them as a calamity, and of the Industrial one they were not aware.
And here the French ones
I learnt the names of dogs and ducks and horses, and the smells of seasons – of the scent that drifted across the snow from where the sides of boar were smoked, of sweet clouded wine drunk foaming off the press and stands at sunrise immobile by a pond, of the tree that bore tree-hundred weight in plums and the swinging fall of rye before the scythe.  I learnt terms of bee-keeping and terms of stag-driving; I learnt of clean straw, oats and clover, of winter honey, walnuts and March wool, of the pig killed at Michaelmas and Easter, and the names baked whole inside a loaf of bread; I learnt of demonstrations held by travelling Mesmerists in the library, of quirks of squires, discomfiture of tutors, and of the ruses employed by peacocks
We were on much less solid ground when it came to the plot, and especially that portion of the plot that had to do with how her parents came to be together.  I get it, who wants  to think about that, let alone write it up?  It’s gross.  In any case, a good novel and I’m glad I gambled on it

Friday, 27 September 2019

BLACK SHEEP by Georgette Heyer

Another Heyer.  I read it ages ago, so I won't venture a comment on what I thought, as I don't remember.  I often turn to Heyer when I haven't managed to order a paper book and am reduced to Kindle on my iPhone, and this was one of those cases. I read it while falling asleep in hotel rooms in a work week.  Sort of depressing.  Also sort of strange that such an old fashioned writer I tend to only read in the most modern of ways

THE CORINTHIAN by Georgette Heyer


A reboot of THESE OLD SHADES, a girl meets boy story where the girl is dressed as a boy, and the boy is much, much older.  More like girl meets man, though without the creepy connotations that come immediately to mind. 

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

LIE WITH ME by Philippe Besson (trans. Molly Ringwald)



This book is sold as a new CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, and that I think is a mistake.  It sets a tough bar, and LIE WITH ME does not clear it.  It’s hard for a short novel not to feel insubstantial, or slight, and this one falls into that trap.  It feels like a little summary of a relationship, the outline for an idea for a novel, rather than the novel itself. 

It tells the story of a brief romance between two boys in high school in a provincial French town in the 1980s.  One is a farmer’s son, and he tells the other that of course ‘you will get out’ while he will not.  This proves sadly prophetic.  They never see each other again after the last day of high school.  We find out eventually that the farmer’s son did indeed never get out, and worse than that he ended up married to some poor girl he got pregnant.

So, it’s a good little story about missing out on your life.   Just not nearly so good as CALL ME BY YOUR NAME. 

DISGRACE by JM Coetzee


This is clearly a great novel, and I hated it.

It is set in South Africa tells the story of an older university professor who has an affair with a student.  She complains about it to the authorities, and he refuses to comply with the standard processes, and so is fired.  I fear he is making a statement, though what that statement is is not clear.  Perhaps that old white men are mad about the removal of their privileges? (I mean, I hear you,  I would be mad too. Patriarchy pretty sweet).   

He then goes to live with his daughter, who is living on a rural smallholding.  She gets gang raped, possibly by the relatives of her foreman.  She doesn’t go to the police.  Eventually the foreman offers for her to become one of his wives, and she accepts, because she feels to continue to live on the smallholding, she needs the protection of the local community.  Apparently, this is because of white guilt.  Rather, I say someone has untreated trauma and urgently needs therapy.  I need hardly tell you that JM Coetzee himself emigrated to Australia.  OF COURSE HE DID.  Wikipedia tells me this, but I didn’t need Wikipedia.  The book drips with a kind of ‘South Africa is finished’ and ‘white people are cursed’ mindset that I am very familiar with.  The professor starts working at a dog shelter and eventually manages to bring himself to put down his favourite stray dog.

Let’s take this, the professor’s reasoning for why his student should sleep with him:  
Because a woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone.  It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it. 
I mean, I don’t know how to deal with it.  How can you be so un-self-aware and still be alive?  Don’t you keep walking into walls because you don’t know you are alive? 

I was annoyed throughout, but I can’t pretend it wasn’t written with great elegance and precision.  And even though I hated the protagonist, when he gave up the dog I did have a small cry.  So clearly I have very confused feelings about this book. 

x

Saturday, 21 September 2019

FLAMETHROWERS by Rachel Kusher



x

I really didn’t like this book very much, which surprised me, because it was heavily recommended by the author Jonathan Franzen, and usually I love everything he suggests (e.g., THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN).  This though I found just mostly lame.  It is about an American girl in the 1970s who ends up with a much older Italian man. She is interested in being a conceptual artist, and in motorbikes, and finds herself going to Italy to try and break a land speed record.  Somehow she ends up in some social unrest and gets dumped. 

While I can see why many critics admired it, I can also see why some panned it.  I saw one describe it as “macho,” which I thoroughly agree with.  It also has a very common and very annoying figure in contemporary literature, which is the protagonist who kind of drifts around without any agency.  There was also a terrible chapter where the author thought she better let us know that the rubber for the motorcycle tires came from oppressed people in the Amazon.  Embarrassingly for this section she changes to the second person present tense. In addition to everything else, I very much fear the author thinks indigenous people live in the moment.  Cringe.

CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY by Edith Wharton



Nothing can compare with Wharton’s great novels, AGE OF INNOCENCE and ETHAN FROMME,  which are wonderful, terrifying novels about how easy it is to waste a life. 

This one however is pretty good, and certainly very contemporary.  It tells the story of one Undine Spragg, a gold digger who succeeds in digging an awful lot of gold, only to find out that her reward is an overwhelming desire for more or better gold.  She is from a nouveau riche Midwestern family, and ruthlessly marries her way up the New York social scale. 

I was really struck by the character of her first husband, an idealistic young man she betrays extensively.  We are clearly supposed to feel sorry for him, especially when he kills himself in despair.  But frankly, it was hard to do.  The only reason she could betray him so utterly was because he did not know the first thing about her as a person.  All he was interested in was her pretty face.  And surely that is a lesson as old as time: chasing the pretty girl comes with problems.  Also, it stretched credulity.  Who kills themselves because they were cheated on?  Like eat some ice-cream, go out with your friends, and get over it.   

Side point, here is a picture of me actually reading it, in Zimbabwe. I was occasionally disturbed by impala.

HOLIDAYS ON ICE by David Sedaris



There was a period in 2011, not a very happy period, where I read David Sedaris very intensively.  I finished the majority of his books in a two week period.  This one I picked up when I was on a mini-break in Barcelona, and was facing the daunting prospect of a day at the beach without anything to read. Clear recipe for existential crisis: sun, sea, and my own thoughts.  So I borrowed this from my host’s bookcase, who while Spanish apparently reads in both French and English. 

By far the best of the short stories here is Sedaris’ famous SANTALAND DIARIES, that chronicles his time as an elf at Macy’s Christmas grotto.  Let me quote extensively, just because I feel like it:

I came home this afternoon and checked the machine for a message from UPS but the only message I got was from the company that holds my student loan, Sallie Mae. Sallie Mae sounds like a naive and barefoot hillbilly girl but in fact they are a ruthless and aggressive conglomeration of bullies located in a tall brick building somewhere in Kansas. I picture it to be the tallest building in that state and I have decided they hire their employees straight out of prison. It scares me.
The woman at Macy’s asked, “Would you be interested in full-time elf or evening and weekend elf?”
I said, “Full-time elf.”
I have an appointment next Wednesday at noon.
I am a thirty-three-year-old man applying for a job as an elf.
I often see people on the streets dressed as objects and handing out leaflets. I tend to avoid leaflets but it breaks my heart to see a grown man dressed as a taco. So, if there is a costume involved, I tend not only to accept the leaflet, but to accept it graciously, saying, “Thank you so much,” and thinking, You poor, pathetic son of a bitch. I don’t know what you have but I hope I never catch it. This afternoon on Lexington Avenue I accepted a leaflet from a man dressed as a camcorder. Hot dogs, peanuts, tacos, video cameras, these things make me sad because they don’t fit in on the streets. In a parade, maybe, but not on the streets. I figure that at least as an elf I will have a place; I’ll be in Santa’s Village with all the other elves. We will reside in a fluffy wonderland surrounded by candy canes and gingerbread shacks. It won’t be quite as sad as standing on some street corner dressed as a french fry.
Unfortunately, as this is an early collection, it also includes a format Sedaris has since wisely abandoned, which is fiction.  These stories are not great.  But the memoir pieces are amazing.  He basically invented the lightly comic personal essay as a genre, and is its undisputed king. 
In depressing news, in googling my own blog to figure out when I was on my Sedaris binge, I also found that the book of his I read last, THEFT BY FINDING, which I had remembered as recent was in fact two years ago.  Time only flies like that when you are either 1) having fun or 2) getting old.  Let’s hope in this case it is both

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FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE by Taffy Brodesser-Akner


This novel, a NEW YORK TIMES bestseller, appeared on so many of various news and social media feed that I sort of put off reading it.  No one likes the hard sell.  Or the feeling that the algorithms have profiled your preferences so exactly to find you content you will like.  But eventually I broke down and bought it.  And alright robot overlords I admit it!  It is content that I like.

The novel tells the story of Toby Fleishman, who is getting divorced.  He has joint custody and a lot of anger issues.  He is just discovering the world of dating apps.  Then his ex-wife disappears and his life takes a downward (or is it upward?) turn. Primarily what I liked was the sharply comic turn of phrase.  How’s this:
Toby had been told all his life that being in love means never having to say you’re sorry.  But no, it was actually being divorced that meant never having to say you’re sorry
Or this:

 People under forty had optimism.  They had optimism for the future; they didn’t accept that their future was going to resemble their present with alarming specificity.
Or this, about a hospital
Being at the hospital was like being inside the future, but as it was imagined by science fiction films in the last part of the twentieth century, not the actual future we ended up with, where everything just turned out being smaller and flimsier than it used to be
Or here, an offhand description of some man:
 It was unclear if he knew about his blackhead situation 
This is more than enough to keep the novel enjoyable.  The actual story, and its larger themes, were maybe not quite so successful.  Basically, the novel is interested in exploring the idea of midlife and marriage, and especially what happens when one partner stays at home.  Apparently, we all get very unhappy and most of us are having affairs.  This I didn’t quite follow.  First of all, it’s not my experience.  I know lots of happy married people.  Second, all the characters wealthy. The central character is a doctor on $200K annually, which is apparently not enough for that social set, and he is rather a figure of pity, though as he tells us – “ .. . he’d gone into his field at a time when doctors could still be respected” -  ie., before the rise and rise of the banker and the consultant.
Perhaps money really can’t buy happiness, but can buy unhappiness?   This is also not my experience.   I have no data set to advise on this one.  But the book is very much about women, and there I do have some experience.  The thrust of the book is very much that
The world diminished a woman from the moment she stopped being sexually available to it, and there was nothing to do but accept that and grow older
And apparently this is like a truth we all have to live with. I mean I really don’t get it. The older I get, the more trouble I seem able to cause.  So I realy don’t understand all the suffering.  But I get that for certain women with a lot of money, who want a  lot more money, and don’t have jobs, the struggle is real.  It’s hard not to sound dismissive.  But you know, get a job.  Then you won’t have time to worry about if you are sexy enough. 

Monday, 16 September 2019

MY LIVES by Edmund White


In the mid-1950s, when I was fourteen or fifteen, I told my mother I was homosexual: that was the word, back then, homosexual, in its full satanic majesty, cloaked in ether fumes, a combination of evil and sickness.  
Of course I’d learned the word from her.
Such is the very excellent beginning of this memoir of the life of author Edmund White.  I learnt something in this book about writing, and something about psychotherapy, but mostly I learnt that there was a period after the sexual revolution and before AIDS where a certain generation had a truly incredibly amount of sex.  And I mean, like really at lot.  Like, I can’t tell if I believe it, but then I guess there wasn’t that much on TV. 
As a side bar, let me just say how typical I think this is of this generation.  They basically lucked out: no war, no Depression, just rising house prices and access to birth control.  They took an absolute flame thrower to the environment, to the European Union, and to the notion that parents want a better life for their children.  If there is one thing we have learnt about this generation, it’s that they will vote for themselves absolutely no matter what, and god help those coming after them.  After Brexit, I don’t even like to give up my seat on the tube for an old person.  I am so ready for the revolution.
Revolution aside, back to Edmund White.  Unusually this book is organized not chronologically but by various themes ‘My Mother,’ ‘My Shrinks,’ ‘My Friends,’ and similar.  As so often in memoirs (regular readers will know I am on a memoir kick) the childhood is the most vivid part.  I wonder why this is? I have two hypothesis 1) Because you are just learning about life when you are young, it strikes you as more wonderful/memorable/unique; or 2) Because you are further away from it you have had more time to shape it into legend. 
I tend to think it is 2).  But in any case, White has a particularly interesting childhood, in the dubious position of ‘best friend’ to his divorced mother.  He spends a lot of time in therapy, trying to be cured of his homosexuality.  His therapist blames the parents (fully agreed; certainly nothing I’ve ever done has been my fault).  However, as Edmund points out:
They were as eccentric as he – impoverished rural Texans unprepared for the world they’d created for themselves by earning money and moving North . . . they were self-made crazy people, all too full of dangerous feelings.
This was not a bad thing in his view, as he observes:
Some children complain because their parents fight or are divorced, without realizing the most neglected people of all are the offspring of love marriages.  A husband and wife besotted with each other look at their children as annoying interlopers.
I’ve often thought this, but it’s the first time I’ve seen someone else mention it.  He gives his parents other weird free passes too.  Try this:
My father did try to seduce my sister, who many years later remembered that Daddy had come on to her when she was thirteen or fourteen.  He’d tried to kiss her and fondle her.  She’d said, ‘No Daddy, that’s not right.”  She’d been a bit proud that she appealed to him – after all, our mother had often spoken of the elaborate ruses she’d imagined to reawaken his sexual attachment to her.
  ?!?!?!
White is clearly a writer, and the book is full of interesting observations, such as  ". . . later I would discover that twelve-tone composers read Keats just as experimental poets listened to Glen Miller – few people were avant-garde outside their own domain" and  "New York is a city of foreign accents in which no one ever asks someone where he is from except out of hostility or as a form of flirtation."
But mostly this book is about sex.  He will describe someone by their height, and their eye colour, or whatever, so-far-so-standard, but this is the only book I’ve ever read where people are also routinely described by their GENITALS.  Sample: 
 I remember Jim had a long, thin cock and very warm balls.
I guess it makes sense.  It must be so super weird for boys that all their junk is on the outside, instead of where it should be, and is for girls, safely on the inside, nicely protected from things. 
The book gets bogged down in later pages in some serious name-dropping, in which he greatly overestimates how impressed we will be by how Foucault used to act at cocktail parties.  However I still enjoyed it, as a window into what it was like to get to be in the generation that has burned the house down.

Friday, 16 August 2019

GROWING UP by Russell Baker


The straightforward title of this memoir is a good clue to what’s inside.  Basically, he tells you all about how he grew up.  It gives you a different perspective on modern memoirs, where people feel that they have to have interior dramas and unique personal problems.  Baker tells us very little about his interior life, and focuses almost entirely on other people.  It was refreshing, and makes me wonder about our current modern mindset.  The idea that I might not be the centre of my own life is somehow sort of a relief.  Perhaps our focus on self-improvement and self-care is a symptom of an unhealthy modern self-absorption.

He grows up in a working class home during the Depression.  Times are tough, but family bonds are strong.  His mother is determined he makes something of himself and in many ways the book is her story more than his.  An example of what I mean by times are tough is his paper route.  Lots of ten year old kids have paper routes, but his happens at 2am in a bad part of Baltimore.  Apparently this is fine, because he gets two dollars. 

The book begins in fact with his mother, who is in hospital as an old woman:
Of my mother’s childhood and her people, of their time and place, I knew very little.  A world had lived and died, and though it was part of my blood and bone I knew little more about it than I knew of the world of the pharaohs.  . . . Sitting at her bedside, forever out of touch with her, I wondered about my own children, and their children, and children in general, and about the disconnections between children and parents that prevent them from knowing each other.  Children rarely want to know who their parents were before they were parents, and when age finally stirs their curiosity there is no parent left to tell them. 
I suspect this book is written in part for his children.  I am not sure how much they will appreciate the extensive detail on how he hooked up with their mum.  Essentially when he meets her she works behind the make-up counter, and while he is quite crazy about her he doesn’t think she is ‘good enough’ to be his wife.  I am not sure why he is so sniffy, as he is the one with the background in dangerous child labour.  In any case, this lady breaks up with him after three years, because she realizes it isn’t going anywhere.  He manages to hold off calling her for a heroic three weeks or so.  Master stroke on her side, she then goes on a business trip with some men.  Then he really loses his mind.  Here is their romantic proposal when she returns.  It’s 7am at the train station cafĂ©:
“I was going to say I’ve been thinking while you were away,” I said.
“I did some thinking too.” 
“Well, what I was thinking was, maybe it’s time I started thinking about getting married.” 
“Do you have somebody in mind?” 
“Are you still interested in getting married?” I asked 
“We’ve covered all this a hundred times.  I’m tired of it.” 
“Would you like to get married?” 
“To who?” 
“You know what I mean.”
“Well, say it,” she said. 
“Let’s get married.” 
“After the Sun raises you to eighty dollars a week?” 
“As soon as you want to. I’ve been figuring, and think we can get by on seventy dollars a week, if you promise to quit charging things in department stores.” 
“Would I have to live with your mother?” 
“That’s a hell of a question.” 
“I just want to know whether I’m going to have a husband or a mother’s boy.” 
“Do you want to fight or do you want to get married?” 
“Is March too soon?” she replied. 
I suppose I gasped.  March was only eight weeks away. It seemed terrifyingly immediate.  “March is fine with me,” I said. 
Mimi reached across the table and took my hand.“Kiss me,” she said.
Anyway they made it to their 65th wedding anniversary, so something went right. 

This book won the Pulitzer and sold 22 million copies.  Not all of those 22 million readers were happy.  I got this book used on Amazon, and I do love a yellowing dog-eared copy.  I especially love this one, as it was clearly owned by a teenage boy.  He adds after the various review quotes:
 This book sucks! Ken Johnson
He also reveals something I am sure would embarrass him today.  In a smart move he writes it in a foreign language:  
Ich liebe Sara Welch sehr viel
In a horrifying show of Google power, I was able to establish in about five minutes based on these names and where this book came from that Ken and Sara may be people who attended Clark High School in Las Vegas in the early 90s.  Truly, Big Brother is here and he is us. 

SPANDAU: THE SECRET DIARIES by Albert Speer


I found this in my father’s bookcase.  It is diaries written during Speer’s twenty years spent in jail after the second World War.  It’s one thing when you have just your regular crimes, but Speer was in for crimes against humanity.  I mean, how many people in high school ever think: I’m going to be famous for crimes against humanity?  It must come as a surprise, after the fact, because while you are busy being crazy you probably never think your behaviour rises to anything beyond but I-did-what-I had-to.

This is certainly Speer’s argument.  He was a highly ambitious, but not highly successful, architect when he met Hitler.  Hitler offered him the opportunity to build buildings for his thousand year Reich.  I’ve heard of the thousand year Reich, but always thought it was propaganda.  Apparently not - he genuinely thought this was what he was creating.  Eventually Speer became Minister of Armaments, and was thus crucial to the Nazi war effort. 

While other Nazis (I guess you could call them smart Nazis) ran away in the last days of the war, Speer stayed around, not thinking the Nuremberg trials would go bad for him.  After all, it was a war, and etc.  The judges didn’t look kindly on his use of forced labour (also called slavery) in the armaments factories, and he was sentenced to twenty years.  (Interesting side point: unlike the Allies, Germany refused to use women in its factories, preferring slaves.  Morality aside, how dumb is that?  Obviously slaves will sabotage you every chance they get, versus your wives who you would at least assume are on your side)

His twenty years he has to serve with seven other leading Nazis. You would think he would think he might find that comforting, but this turns out to be pretty much like it would be for anyone condemned to spend decades with their work colleagues, right after a business went bankrupt.  There is a lot of re-fighting the war, and trying to argue that more submarines would have made a difference, or more Aryan purity or whatever. 

Speer also wrestles a lot with how he got there.  Here he is on when he first saw Hitler:
Students had taken me along to a mass meeting on Berlin’s East Side.  Under leafless trees young people in cheap clothes poured towards one of the big beer halls in Berlin’s Hasenheide.  Three hours later I left that same beer garden a changed person.  I saw the same posters on the dirty advertising columns, but looked at them with different eyes.  A blown-up picture of Adolf Hitler in a martial pose that I had regarded with a touch of amusement on my way there  had suddenly lost all its ridiculousness. 
He spends a lot of time trying to explain the appeal.  He also tries to excuse himself, claiming he didn’t know the Holocaust was happening.  For example:
(Hilter) was capable of tossing off quite calmly, between the soup and the vegetable course, ‘I want to annihilate the Jews in Europe.  This war is the decisive confrontation between National Socialism and world Jewry.’ .. That was how he used to talk, in military conferences and at table.  And the entire circle . . . and I myself, all of us would sit there looking grave and gloomy.  . . . No one ever contributed a comment; at most someone would sedulously put in a word of agreement.
He claims that when Hitler said exterminate, he didn’t know he meant ‘exterminate.’  Just like you can say you will crush your enemies but don’t mean ‘crush’.  I wasn’t quite sure how to take all this, as he went on about this for quite some time (and let’s face it he had a lot of time to go on about things, like about twenty years).  Wikipedia tells me I shouldn’t trust a word of it and that there is evidence he knew very well what was going on, and indeed helped build the camps.  Though no one claims he was actively involved in what happened there.

It was interesting to read this book and try and understand how far it is a cynical effort at self-promotion and how far a genuine effort to explain how he got to where he was.  Also very interesting – probably more interesting - was seeing how someone deals with twenty years of nothing.  I don’t think I’ve ever quite understood how long twenty years is, or what prison truly means, before I read this book.  Death is obviously the end of life, but in so far as life is just a series of experiences, you can see how prison is the next best thing to death, because it really does deprive you of experiences. 

It reminded me of (strange bedfellows alert) Nelson Mandela’s LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, where you see how prisoners will create drama and event out of nothing.  For example, Speer starts doing long walks back and forth in the prison yard every day, and then gets an Atlas, so he can imagine that he is walking around the globe.  He writes about it as if he is really in India, or wherever, and in the end of his dairies focuses very much on how much he ‘hopes he can make it to Guadalajara’ before he is let out. He is eventually given a garden, and this transforms his life.  He is there so long that he plants tree seedlings knowing he will live to sit in their shade.  He’s probably a monster, but damn, it’s hard not to feel sorry for him. 

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...