Tuesday, 31 December 2019

WHAT I READ: THE LAST DECADE


As a new year’s resolution in 2010 I thought I’d try and blog everything I read for a year.  I expected I might make it till about say February, new year’s resolutions being what they are.  Ladies and gentleman: I’ve made it an entire decade.  10 years, 508 books. 

In that ten years I’ve changed countries three times  (UK/Kenya/South Africa/UK again), and spent long periods in lots of places outside of those (Zimbabwe/Nigeria/Sierra Leone/Ethiopia/Luxembourg). I have changed careers (majorly).  I have lost my father and my cousin.  

But that’s all in my real life.  My other life, in books, is in this blog.  To my surprise, I think it’s comprehensive: I don’t think I’ve missed more than 3 or 4 books the entire 10 years.

It’s been uneven.  Some years I read a lot - 100 books in 2011, (17 in June alone, not unrelated to who I had lost); other years not so much – just 39 in 2013.  I thought briefly about in celebration trying to re-read the whole blog, but I don’t think I will.  It would take a lot of time, for one thing, and for another based on a few samples I’ve taken here and there, it’s a very weird experience.  It’s a bizarre time travel to old versions of myself and often opens up strange memories; because I find, startlingly, that often with a book comes a memory of where I was when I read that book, or of what I was avoiding.  Last year when I rounded up what I read in 2018 I put it quite well:
It’s very strange to look back over this blog.  I’m like: who is this person who wrote this blog? She seems to have a lot of energy and a lot of free time.  Also, she has a lot of funny things to say.  I guess we each have our own sense of humour, so it makes sense that reading what I wrote, I often think: that’s exactly what I would have said!  What is really disconcerting is to read a blog post about a book I have entirely forgotten.  It’s like time travel to a former self, and offers the rare opportunity to look at myself at a strange kind of remove.  
Other books I remember well, and reading the blog takes me back not just to the book, but to where I was when I read it.  SOMETHING IN THE WATER, I’m sick in a hotel room in Napa.  GRANT I’m on the beach in Mauritius.  NORMAL PEOPLE it’s the sofa of my living room in the middle of the night   If I ever re-read this post, let my future self note: it’s a hotel room in Wisconsin at  4am. 

I did re-read my very first post, on Vikram Seth’s A SUITABLE BOY.  Apparently I had spent the night in a treehouse in Kenya (?). In some ways I am different – I learn that back then I ‘never bought books online’ - while today I always do; but in some ways I am quite the same – apparently ten years ago I still had a lot to say about colonialism in literature.  I wonder I’m not tired of myself yet.

To celebrate I’ve recorded below all 508 books.  I have to laugh at some of it – who was the person who thought she should read the textbook ECONOMICS: PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICE (Standish et al)?  And I was surprised to learn today that apparently I read THE BLUE FLOWER twice, five years apart, without noticing, but both times quoting the same section on eating cow udders.  I’ve also added the summary from each year of my favourite books, which is a tour through ten years of highlights. 

Onwards: to another year; maybe another ten years.  If I’m spared. I should note I have started a new version of this blog, on Instagram, a service that didn’t even exist when this blog began.  (Neither, by the way, did e-books).  If I make it to 2030, who knows what I will be using? Perhaps I’ll just hand it all over to my AI. 

Enjoy the two pics; the one here from last week; the one above from some time in 2010. Two countries, two modes of transport, two hair colours.  Time passes but let it be known I still own that T-shirt.


Best of the blog

2010
Back then, I didn’t summarize my end of the year, but I’ll go ahead and say my best were THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; and .I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith

2011
ABSENT by John Eppel, a hilariously sad satire of contemporary Zimbabwe, and that rarest thing, a coherent account of white African identity
FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen, a fabulously Victorian novel of contemporary America
THE BRIEF AND WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz, a brilliant and funny account of a multinational dork's life
GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell, an oldie but still a goodie
MY ANTONIA by Willa Cather, on the romance of the Midwest
PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT by Philip Roth, on masturbation as a major philosophical event.



2012
A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens: how did I live this long without ever reading this?
THE WAY WE LIVE NOW by Anthony Trollope: it's so absorbing, it's like an anaesthetic for your actual life.  I also enjoyed non-fiction for perhaps the first time ever this year: highlights include STANLEY by Time Jeal and THE GUN by CJ Chivers.


2013
PERSUASION BY Jane Austen
THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P by Adelle Wadman

2014
Highlights were GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson, a truly astonishing, almost oppressively wonderful book; A MAN IN LOVE by Karl Ove Knausgaard, which began my love affair with his massive autobiographical project; and MOTHER'S MILK, by Edward St Aubyn, a book that made me look forward to my own midlife crisis. 


2015
Best of the year is obviously lead by Austen. But it’s hardly fair to put her in the race, like running a horse against chickens. So the best of the rest: the quartet from Elena Ferrente of MY BRILLIANT FRIEND, THE STORY OF A NEW NAME, THOSE WHO LEAVE AND THOSE WHO STAY, and THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD. It’s a magnificent series on a pair of friends from Naples in the early twentieth century. In a sign that it truly is the end of days, the publishers have felt it necessary to brand this major literary achievement as chick lit. I pity those who buy it as chick lit, as they will be horrified - its all about how boring your children are and how to abandon old friends who aren’t working for you anymore. REUNION by Fred Uhlman is a wonderful novella about the effect of the rise of the Nazis on a pair of high school boys; THE KNOWN WORLD by Edward P Jones is a fantastic huge story of slavery in the American South; and A NOTABLE WOMAN by Jean Lucey Pratt is a set of real life diaries covering fifty years in the life of an ordinary woman that had me blubbing in Luxor airport.

2016
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.

2017
Particularly: CALL ME BY YOUR NAME by Andre Aciman, a fantastic story of adolescent love and adult loss; CAPTAIN SCOTT’S LAST EXPEDITION by Robert Falcon Scott, a transfixingly wonderful account of his journey to the Pole, which ended in full ugly-crying on the Gatwick Express (for me, not for him; he was dead, I was just coming back from Cyprus); and THE CAZALET CHRONICLES, by Elizabeth Jane Howard, a fabulous 3000 pages on civilian life in WWII.  Then there’s INSTEAD OF A LETTER by Diana Athill, a story about a really, but really, bad break-up; JG Ballard's EMPIRE OF THE SUN, which is really remarkable account of a Singaporean prison camp, and, though it hardly needs me to give it the nod, LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding, which is even better than I remember it in high school.  And then I can’t help but mention LIFE AND FATE by Vasily Grossman, a story about who of his friends and family he sold out to survive the Stalinist purges.

2018
Best of the blog: CONVERSATIONSWITH FRIENDS by Sheila Rooney, a story of love and friendship I’ve read three times this year already; EARLY WORK by Andrew Marr (just getting in under the bar as I read it in December), which is a hilarious tale of infidelity and procrastination;LESS by Andrew Sean Greer (give him another Pulitzer); and MEMOIRS OF ANINFANTRY OFFICER by Siegfried Sassoon, a memoir of the First World War it is not one’s business to like or dislike but just to respect. 

2019:
BAD BLOOD by Lorna Sage, a sizzlingly angry memoir of teenage pregnancy
TESTAMENT OF YOUTH by Vera Brittain, a diary of a nurse in WWI, but mostly a love letter to her dead boyfriend

I was going to give you the full list of all 508 (of which 44% women by the way), but it is 11 pages of Word document So here's just 2019.
  1. THE PURSUIT OF LOVE by Nancy Mitford
  2. FREDERICA by Georgette Heyer
  3. DAISY JONES AND THE SIX by Taylor Jenkins Reid
  4. KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER by Sigrid Undset (Trans. Tii...
  5. TESTAMENT OF YOUTH by Vera Brittain
  6. THE RETURN OF THE SOLDIER by Rebecca West
7.       MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER by Oyinkan Braithwaite
  1. TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT by Graham Greene
  2. DELIVERANCE by James Dickey
11.    THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE: A TALE OF THE LAKE DISTRICT by James Rebank
12.    HAPPINESS BY DESIGN: FINDING PLEASURE AND PURPOSE by Paul Dolan
  1. A SEASON IN SINJI by J.L Carr
  2. A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES by John Kennedy Toole
  3. THE BLUE FLOWER by Penelope Fitzgerald
  4. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME by Andre Aciman
  5. APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA by John O’Hara
  6. BAD BLOOD by Lorna Sage
  7. A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY by JL Carr
  8. YOUR BEST YEAR YET by Jinny Ditzler
  9. THE MIGHTY FRANKS by Michael Frank
  10. INDEPENDENT PEOPLE by Holdor Laxness
  11. DEVIL'S CUB by Georgette Heyer
  12. THESE OLD SHADES by Georgette Heyer
  13. DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? By Philip K Dick
  14. THE GRADUATE by Charles Webb
  15. CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS by Sheila Rooney
  16. THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA by Stendahl
  17. THE BEGINNING OF SPRING by Penelope Fitzgerald
  18. ZORBA THE GREEK by Nikos Kazantzakis
  19. ARABELLA by Georgetter Heyer
  20. GROWING UP by Russell Baker
  21. SPANDAU: THE SECRET DIARIES by Albert Speer
  22. THE BIG SLEEP by Raymond Chandler
  23. GIVING UP THE GHOST by Hilary Mantel
  24. BLACK SHEEP by Georgette Heyer
  25. THE CORINTHIAN by Georgette Heyer
  26. LIE WITH ME by Philippe Besson (trans. Molly Ringwald)
  27. DISGRACE by JM Coetzee
  28. FLAMETHROWERS by Rachel Kusher
  29. CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY by Edith Wharton
  30. HOLIDAYS ON ICE by David Sedaris
  31. FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
  32. MY LIVES by Edmund White
  33. PLAY IT AS IT LAYS by Joan Didion
  34. EARLY WORK by Andrew Martin
  35. OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout
  36. THE CHILDREN ACT by Ian McEwan
  37. A GOOD MAN IN AFRICA by William Boyd
  38. A LEGACY by Sybille Bedford
  39. BERTA ISLAS by Javier Marias
  40. THE BURIED GIANT by Kazuo Ishiguro
  41. STORY OF A MARRIAGE by Geir Gulliksen
  42. WORLD WAR Z by Max Brooks
  43. MUTOKO MADNESS by Angus Shaw
  44. THE GODMOTHER by Hannelore Cayre
  45. THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE by Muriel Spark
  46. THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS by Isabel Allende
  47. NOW WE SHALL BE ENTIRELY FREE by Andrew Miller

Sunday, 29 December 2019

NOW WE SHALL BE ENTIRELY FREE by Andrew Miller

This is like  a Jane Austen book but if Austen wrote thrillers.  It tells the story of a veteran of the Napoleonic wars.  He signed up, as many centuries of men seem to have done, with cheerful naivete. and a sort of hopeful blood thirstiness.  Strangely enough, killing strangers does not turn out to be all that fun, and especially not for the horses, and he returns home with a lot on his mind.

He decides to go travelling, to the islands beyond Scotland.  He struggles with a laudanum addiction, falls in love with a woman in some kind of cult, and then discovers he is being pursued by a deranged former army colleague (long story).  Despite all this incident, it does not exactly hang together as a plot.  But I still quite enjoyed it.  It's vividly historically imagined, which I like.  Here  he is describing the activities at port, for example
. . . the flogging of malefactors, the swabbing and coiling, the learning of stars, the difficult Arab maths
And some of it was quite beautiful; here he is spending the afternoon on the deck of a ship:
. . . the dull miracle of sea and air, of time slipping like honey through muslin
Or this, on an egg:
. . . the shell a perfect fit for the curve of his palm. It was like the evidence of something, a proof out of theology.  Also just an egg that he cracked on his front teeth, letting the yolk roll on to his tongue.
I love that description of the shape of an egg as 'a proof out of theology'! 

Mostly though this book made me think that really people have been having a bad time in wars for a very long time.  Read this interesting entry in Wikipedia, about Jonathan Martin, also a deranged veteran of the Napoleonic wars. He had a wild life, with eleven siblings, an aunt obssessed with hell, witnessing his own sister's murder, getting press-ganged into the navy, etc.  Eventually he burned down the choir at York Minster because he was "bothered" by the buzzing of the organ.  Fair enough. You can see where you might be at the end of your tether

Friday, 20 December 2019

THE GODMOTHER by Hannelore Cayre

MONEY IS EVERYTHING is the title of the first chapter of this book, and from this we already know we will enjoy it.  It tells the story of an immigrant woman in Paris who figures out how to briefly become a drug lord/lady.

As with so many things in life, it all begins with her mother.  Her mother is a Jewish refugee from Austria who has dementia and is fixated on her old dog:
Schnookie was the dog who had drowned in ’38 when she and her family were crossing the Danube in a dinghy to escape the Germans.  The fox-terrier had panicked and leaped overboard, to be swept away by the current before the eyes of my powerless mother.   It’s the only time in my life I cried, she would add, in a quavering voice to whomever was listening at the time.  Needless to say, I would feel like killing her whenever she put on this display.   
This hilarious last line gives you a good sense of the narrator we have.  Here she is again on her mother:
Amidst this defeated humanity, I would find my mother strapped into some sort of a capsule, her blind, staring eyes like saucers, fixed on the ceiling, waiting for the heavens to open like the doors of a store on the first day of the sales.
And on the other nursing home visitors, who similarly are struggling under the costs:
There we all were, part of that great, middle-class mass being strangled by its elderly. It was reassuring.
It is these costs that driver her look to a life of crime.  She leverages her low paid job as an Arabic translator to insert herself into the drug trade, helped  by one of her mother’s carers.  She is gloriously successful.  I wish we could have left it at that, but instead we had to have the part where her policeman boyfriend figures out what she is doing, and does not turn her in, but does dump her.  It really struck me: western cultural products can’t stand to have criminal succeed without consequences. 

It’s sort of sweet – I think it is the tradition of the morality tale that we can’t quite shake off.  Or that we don’t want to shake off.  Truth is that mostly people do get away with it.  (Not that I am always going on about dictators, but let's face it they are the best example.  For every Muammar Gaddafi dying in a drainpipe there are ten Idi Amins who get to go out in deluxe Saudi hospital)

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE by Muriel Spark


This story, about a girls’ school, is full of sex, betrayal and tragedy. So a pretty accurate picture of a girls’ school overall.  I speak with authority, as a thirteen year veteran of a Convent myself. 

Miss Jean Brodie cultivates a small group of girls as her special set, all the while leading an impressively shady personal life, involving sleeping with the music teacher because she can’t get the art teacher.  She isn’t big on teaching the actual curriculum, but is big on the Latin derivation of words and how good a leader Mussolini is. 

In a creepy turn of events she encourages one of her students to have an affair with the arts teacher, and another to run off to fight for the fascists in Spain.  Unsurprisingly these grade A life choices end in tears and she is eventually betrayed by one of her own set.  Who then becomes a nun. 

I think I read or saw this as a play many years ago, because I mostly recall it as a story about the girls.  Apparently time is marching on, because I now read it as a story mostly about Miss Jean Brodie, who frankly I found rather inspirational.  I loved how she went big on terrible choices while aggressively telling anyone who would listen about how she was in her prime.  I mean:  #lifegoals

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

LUCKY JIM by Kingsley Amis

Here is a book about a man’s heroic refusal to be reconciled to his own life.    I found it sort of revelatory.   I guess we must live...