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. 


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. 

Sunday, 11 August 2019

THE BIG SLEEP by Raymond Chandler

This is one of those books that was so original it now seems an imitative.  That is, fifty years ago it created a genre, and now looks like a rather stale example of that genre.  (A bit like this).  The genre: hard-boiled detective, ice-cold blonde, straight-up bourbon, etc.  Here’s the opening:
It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothillsI was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them.  I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. 
BOOM!  it’s a murder mystery, but the plot is not really here nor there, so let’s not bother with it.  Chandler didn’t: a chauffeur gets murdered at the beginning, and it’s not clear who did it; and when the movie came to be made, Chandler admitted he didn’t know himself who the culprit was. That’s not the point.  The point is drinking whiskey and being cool.  There’s lots of men facing off.  Here is what he says to one man pointing a gun at him:
“Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains. You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail"
Or here are some orchids:
The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.
Chandler had an interesting life, and only got round to this, his first and most famous novel when he is 51.  This gives me hope for my own life.  Before that he did all sorts, military, corporate work.  From the latter “he was dismissed for a combination of factors, including heavy drinking, depression, missed work, and general womanizing.”   I mean, if you have to get fired, that is #goals way to get fired. 

Friday, 9 August 2019

GIVING UP THE GHOST by Hilary Mantel

I am on a memoir kick at the moment, all handpicked for me out of here.  This one is by a famous writer, Hilary Mantel (author of e.g., WOLF HALL).  It’s not much about her fame, or writing, but more about her rather mysterious inner life.  It has the gorgeous language I expect of her: my blog tells me I’ve read fully five (!) of her books.  She really is the master of transforming the ordinary into the marvellous. Here she is walking up to her back door in the dark:
 But just as feet know the path, fingers know the keys.  Fifty yards from the market place there is no light pollution, no urban backwash to pale the sky; no light path, no footfall.  There is starlight, frost on the path, and owls crying from three parishes
The book has three main focuses: her childhood, her illness, and bizarrely the process of buying her house.  She grew up in a working class family, and is one of that group of English writers whose whole life was changed by passing the 11+ exam.  It’s all very hard scrabble, especially the part where her mother leaves her husband for another man but they all continue to live together, but not in a cool menage-a-trois kind of way, more in an economic necessity kind of way. 

Then she goes to university and gets married, but this is largely summarized in a couple of lines.  The main focus is on her illness.  She has endometriosis, which is famously an under-diagnosed disease among women.  It’s still so today, but back then it was really bad: they sent her to a lunatic asylum rather than believe her symptoms. (I said it was better today, but not a lot better.  Ladies: if you have really bad period pain don’t let anyone tell you it’s not really bad).   

Now, all that said, let me clarify that I’m not saying she’s not crazy.   There are some pretty questionable parts.  She was very frightened once when she saw something creepy in the garden when she was eight.  It’s not clear what it was, possibly a ghost, possibly just a quality of the light, but she emphasizes repeatedly how frightening this was.  I would never tell people about such a thing.  I’m just not ready for the mockery.  Same with the last memoir, about the aunt who was just too charismatic.  I’m beginning to conclude that writing a good memoir means not worrying about mockery.

And now onto the third section, the most profoundly British section, which is all about house buying.  Weirdly, this is also about ghosts.  I enjoyed this view of your past homes:
You come to this place, mid-life.  You don’t know how you got here, but suddenly you’re staring fifty in the face.  When you turn and look back down the years, you glimpse the ghosts of other lives you might have led.  All your houses are haunted by the person you might have been.  The wraiths and phantoms creep under your carpets and between the warp and weft of your curtains, they lurk in wardrobes and lie flat under drawer liners. 
She moves to a new housing estate, and I enjoyed her account of her young neighbours:
They were not . . . the sort for adulterous upsets, for drunken fumbles, for spring folie, for subterfuge and lies.  They were grounded infotec folk, hardware or software people. .  They were mobile in their habits till their children fixed them; keen, pragmatic, willing to defer gratification . . . Men and women met each other halfway, gentle fathers and defined, energetic mothers. . . They had parents, but they had them as weekend accessories, appearing on summer Saturdays like their barbecue forks 
 Her endometriosis, being treated very late, means she can’t have children, and these almost-children also haunt the book. 
Even adulterers have their ghost children. Illicit lovers say: what would our child be like?  Then, when they have parted or are forced apart, the child goes on growing up, a shadow, a half-shadow of possibility.  The country of the unborn is criss-crossed by the roads not taken, the paths we turned our back on.  In a sly state of half-becoming, they lurk in the shadowland of chances missed.
So GIVING UP THE GHOST is an unusual memoir, in not being just the story of her life, but the story of all the lives she didn’t get to lead.  It's sad really, it seems unfair: how come we only get to live the one life.  Seems like we should get a second chance.

Sunday, 28 July 2019


Fourth time through this book.  I really can't say why I like it so much.  It's something about the internal life of the central character, something about the extraordinarily contemporary language, something about the love story at the centre, but all that doesn't really add up to how much I love it. 

Saturday, 6 July 2019


I keep meaning to read Stendhal.  I got a good distance into this book before I googled myself (by means of this blog) and found out I have in fact already read Stendahl.  

And not just Stendahl, but THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA.  In my defense, last time I apparently gave up on p225.  This time I got to p265.  

Yes, I'm not into it.  It's just sort of hard going with lots of silly swashbuckling.  This blog is now almost ten years old and I see it is such a long time period that I have forgotten entire books, but not such a long time that I have changed as a person.  Creepily, not just my verdict and quit point are about the same, but so too are the parts I enjoyed.  Both this time and last I noted this rather fun line, which shows cities don't change so very much:
In front of each of these cafes, crowds of the inquisitive are installed on chairs in the middle of the street, eating ice-cream and criticizing the passers-by. 
This time around I also enjoyed the first hand account of the battle of Waterloo (as Stendahl marched with Napoleon - including on the way back from Moscow - yikes).  I also really enjoyed learning more about the world pre-democracy, where the 'greatest good for the greatest number' was considered a passing 'cult.'  Here is someone telling the main character, a nobleman called Fabrizio, about a government functionary who greatly respects the nobility:
“But when he is front of the prince, or even in front of me, he can’t say no.  Truth to tell, if I’m to produce my full effect,  I have to have the big yellow sash on over my tunic.  In a frock-coat he’d contradict me, so I always put on a uniform to receive him.  It’s not for us to destroy the prestige of power, the French newspapers are demolishing it quite fast enough.  The obsession with deference is hardly going to survive as long as we do, and you, nephew, will outlive deference.  You will simply be a man!
At one point, Fabrizio considers running away to America, and his aunt (with whom he is in an incestuous relationship, but don't worry about that): "explained to him the cult of the god dollar, and the respect that must be paid to merchants and artisans in the street, who by their votes determine everything."  What a nightmare!

THE BEGINNING OF SPRING by Penelope Fitzgerald

This is the story of a man whose wife leaves him, with the children.  She returns then returns them at the first opportunity.   It is set in Russia in the early twentieth century.

I was stunned by Fitzgerald’s THE BLUE FLOWER, which mysteriously out of a few bits of nothing created a profound meditation on life’s brevity.  This was also a few bits of nothing, but somehow it didn’t quite come together in the same way.  Like THE BLUE FLOWER, those bits of nothing are in their own way remarkable.  Based on the last book, I thought she must be some kind of expert on domestic life in eighteenth century Germany, so specific and detailed was the world.  THE BEGINNING OF SPRING makes me think that in fact she must be an expert on twentieth century Russia.   Really I guess she is just some sort of magician. 

ZORBA THE GREEK by Nikos Kazantzakis

Here is a novel on the exciting subject of dealing with your philosophical problems while also mining lignite in rural Crete.  In my endless quest for something to read I often pick up books in the category of minor modern classic, having finished all the major ones long ago, and usually it’s a good call.  This one: jesus. 

Some tortured young man is off to mine lignite.  (What is lignite?  Nobody knows.  But strangely it also came up in this book that I read this year).  He spends a lot of time writing tortured letters to some friend about a set of what we would today call #firstworldproblems about the meaning of life and the nature of Greek identity.  Then he meets this man Zorba, a peasant who tells him all about his love of a musical instrument, the santuri:

If the wife says one word too many, how could I possibly be in the mood to play the santuri?  If your children are hungry and screaming at you, you just try to play ! To play the santuri you have to give everything up to it, d’you understand?
Yes, I understood.  Zorba was the man I had sought so long in vain.  A living heart, a large voracious mouth, a great brute soul, not yet severed from mother earth.

He’s profoundly inspired by Zorba’s connection to the earth and ability to live in the moment.  It’s so classist I can’t tell you.  It’s a really laughable version of the myth of the noble savage that goes completely unexamined.  Or I assume goes unexamined, because I didn’t get to the end. It was just too stupid.  And the misogyny was hard going.  Regular readers know I give a pass to lots of misogyny, because otherwise there’d be hardly anything left to read from the western cannon.  But this one was tough.  You may have noticed how unreasonable Zorba’s wife was to mention the children starving.  He has lots of other strong ideas like this.  Here is how nefarious of us it is to have children when birth control hasn’t been invented yet.
What can you expect from women? He said. That they’ll go and get children by the first man who comes along.  What can you expect of men?  That they fall into the trap.  Mark my words, boss!
And here’s the part where we enjoy getting raped in war zones. 

How they had entered Novo Rossiisk; how tey had looted shops; how they had gone into houses and and carried off the women.  At first the hussies cried and scratched their own faces with their nails and scratched the men, too, but gradually they became tamed, they shut their eyes and yelped with pleasure. They were women, in fact. . .
I just couldn’t do it.  Indeed, if this is a classic it is extremely minor.  Or perhaps it is a major classic, but of a quite different kind than I had been thinking.

ARABELLA by Georgetter Heyer

I really enjoyed this one.  It had a kind of standard Heyer plot, though the romantic lead is a bit more of a bad boy than usual; but it struck me as funnier than the others.  Here is an older lady, about who she comments: “Time had done more to enlarge her body than her mind,” and . .. provided she was not expected to put herself out for them, or to do anything disagreeable, she was both kind and generous to her friends."

Or perhas I was just in the mood for Heyer.   Apparently I am on a real kick in 2019, and I blame is all on Bognor Regis.

Saturday, 29 June 2019

YOUR BEST YEAR YET by Jinny Ditzler

Regular readers will know I am on a self-help kick.  A friend of mine recommend this one to me, and I found it pretty good – it’s a straightforward guide to trying to decide on your goals.  As Ditzler puts it:
After the initial spurt of growing up and becoming an adult, most of us don’t stop to think about goals in the same serious way we did when we carefully planned our education, our career, our first place away from our parents.  We begin to ‘follow our noses’, reacting to circumstances . . . Time goes by and soon we begin to feel our lives are out of control and there’s nothing we can do about it.  Things which matter most to us aren’t getting enough attention and life gets frustrating.  We feel we are no longer in charge of our own lives. 
It’s broadly framed as a workshop to do at new year, though you can do it anytime, and is structured around ten questions.  The first are about reviewing the year past.  She claims:
Almost without exception, people’s initial thoughts about the past are negative.  . . Unless we stop to think about what really happened, we assume that there is far greater cause for disappointment than celebration
I found this to be shockingly true.  I was amazed to see how much more I had achieved in the last year than I had failed at.  Indeed, one of the more interesting parts of the book is not just doing the questions but hearing the author’s review of the many people she has seen answer the questions. 

She provides a structured set of ways of thinking about your life, which I found quite useful, and various examples of how people succeeded by being pragmatic in their approach.  I was tempted to eyeroll, but was stopped by:
. . . take note if you find it much harder to believe these experiences than the earlier examples of peoples’ problems
Her guidance to getting your goals is something she has rather clunkily branded “Gold Time” self management, where you carve out time to focus on what is important but not urgent, which she argues is the stuff that most frequently drops off our list, but is in fact the stuff we should absolutely be doing to actually be in charge of our lives.  

To my mind, figuring out what you want in the first place is much harder than actually executing it, but still, it was an interesting way of thinking about your priorities. 

I recommend this book and have tried to put some of its steps into practice.  It is remarkably difficult to give up one’s prejudice against self-help.  The author notes:
Most of us trap ourselves by not being willing to take the necessary steps to be the master of our own lives, yet we’ll be damned if we’ll let anyone or anything serve as our master in the meantime!  The result- no one’s in charge.  We get nowhere.  Every bit of true progress I’ve made in my life has come from really listening to a teacher or an author and having the discipline to practice his or her lessons until I have learnt them.  Action and follow-through are everything.  
I may as well try someone else’s approach.  It’s not as if mine is working so well. 

THE MIGHTY FRANKS by Michael Frank

It is amazing what different worlds books can take you in to.   The last one was all about the challenges of being an Icelandic sheep farmer.  This one is all about the challenges of having a charismatic aunt.

It’s an odd memoir, almost a misery memoir, except the misery is of so very niche and specific a kind it’s hard to take it seriously.  At the nub of it is his aunt, who is not just the sister of his father but also the wife of his mother’s brother.  That is, siblings married siblings.  One couple had three children (including Michael, the author, the oldest), and the other none.  The mothers of both pairs of siblings live together, and everyone lives walking distance from each other. 

Now that I write that, it’s clearly a recipe for trouble. The trouble comes in the form of this aunt, who is a very successful and wealthy screenwriter, very charismatic, and very obsessed with Michael.  She constantly singles him out for attention, non-sexual but very intense, and the only thing is, he needs to agree with her.  This is okay when he was younger, though a measure of the bizarreness is that she recommends to him – when he is just eight – OF HUMAN BONDAGE and SONS AND LOVERS. “Take my word for it, Lovey, between (them) you’ll learn everything you need to know about what it feels like to be a certain kind of young person.  Your kind, if I may say.”  These are not child appropriate books, unless of course that child is tortured artistically and sexually. 

Anyway, as he heads to adolescence he naturally rebels, and in parallel his aunt becomes increasingly unstable.  Nothing actually specifically bad really happens; no one even gets a slap.  The most extreme is someone going home from holiday in Paris early.  This is not exactly the high water mark of human suffering.  But clearly Frank was troubled enough to write a whole book about it.  And his parents agree: in later life, they apologize for not protecting him from whatever it was his aunt was. 

There’s an interesting side point on his mother being involved in early feminism, where suburban women held “CR groups” that is, consciousness raising groups.  One result of this is that she stops allowing the aunt to decorate their house – which indeed was a weird part of the family dynamic. 

In writing this post it sounds rather as if I didn’t enjoy this book.  However I did.  It’s always interesting to see the specific craziness of someone else’s family.  And I’m always amazed by memoirs: who even remembers their past that clearly?  My theory is, nobody does; but I always admire the boldness of someone willing to write up their fantasy of what happened

Thursday, 27 June 2019


Guys, I’m now fully informed about the life of subsistence sheep farmers in Iceland in the early twentieth century, and let me tell you it is not pretty.   I’m so fully informed I am hoping Icelandic shepherding will somehow come up in dinner party conversation so I can impress others with my incredibly niche knowledge.  This seems unlikely. 

This book is a good corrective to any idea we might have in the modern day about how ‘busy’ and ‘stressed’ we are.  Truly stressed people make their children work sixteen hour days in the rain, because they need to or else they will starve.  Also, they don’t think rain is a big deal.  Here’s the main character:
And if Bjartur heard them complaining about the damp he would reply that it was pretty miserable wretches that minded at all whether they were wet or dry.  He could not understand why such people had been born.  “It’s nothing but damned eccentricity to want to be dry,” he would say.  “I’ve been wet more than half my life and never been a whit the worse for it.”
You would think he must be joking, but no.  When looking for sheep on the mountains he often sleeps out in a cave even when there is snow on the ground.  All you have to do, I learn, is wake up four times a night to turn the boulder you are sleeping on over sixteen times.  Then you are quite warm, and even if not you are so tired you don’t notice it.  Handy tips, if ever my life goes so horrifyingly wrong I have to be an Icelandic sheep farmer.  Then I can look forward to rye bread with a ‘lump of tallow and cod liver’ for breakfast, and salted fish for 100% of other meals, though in spring that should read ‘meal’ as you only get one of those a day.  Brjartur’s elderly grandmother in fact does not like fresh food, arguing it makes her ill. 

The main message of this book, other than to make you very, very, very grateful for your own circumstances is that one life is not long enough for the poor man to ever get out from under.  It’s a bleak, but probably true, opinion, and the central tragedy of the story is Bjartur’s effort to be ‘independent’.

He works 18 years for someone else to afford a small piece of land, and then works himself and his sickly family astoundingly hard, to build a flock ("Whatever happens you can always comfort yourself with the thought that the sheep are in the home pastures," he helpfully comments when someone dies).  That flock is then occasionally wiped out, by worms, or storms, or on one weird occasion by ghosts (?). 

They have one piece of luck: the First World War!  It drives up prices for Icelandic lamb. 
 “Oh let them squabble, damn them,” said Bjartur.  “I only hope they keep it up as long as they can. . . . I only hope they go on blasting one another’s brains out as long as other folk can get some good out of it.  There ought to be plenty of people abroad.  And no one misses them

Poor old Brjartur does well off this, but them overreaches to build a house, which plunges him into debt again.  This does not deter him. He is a battleaxe of a man.  When his only remaining son plans to emigrate to America, leaving no one to take over the shabby field that is his life’s work

He made no further attempt to talk his son over; it is a mark of weakness to try to talk anyone over.  An independent man thinks only of himself and lets others do as they please.  He himself had never allowed anyone to talk him over.
This gives you a flavour.  It’s a sort of sad novel, but also quite funny.  Here is a local middleclass landowner
Now the Bailiff’s nature was such that had he been accused of theft or even of murder he would have preserved an unruffled exterior and have seemed, indeed, to be quite gratified.  But with one crime he would not have his name connected: if anyone insinuated that he was making money the ice was broken and his tongue was loosened, such a slander was more than he could stand. 
You also learn the fate of Bjartur’s whole family, who do all sorts, get pregnant out of wedlock, die in snowstorms, etc.  There’s much wisdom to it, often of the melancholy kind:
 But the first days are always the worst, and there is much comfort in the thought that time effaces everything, crime and sorrow no less than love. 
Poor old Bartjur.  He loses everything anyway, not in the end because of the worms, or the storms, or even the ghosts, but because of the debts.  The tagline of the novel might as well be: You can’t fight city hall.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

DEVIL'S CUB by Georgette Heyer

A Duke elopes with the wrong sister.  He’s got a temper that in a modern novel would be a red flag for domestic violence, so when he finds out his mistake determines to carry on anyway.  Then he falls in love with her but not before a visit from the characters of the previous novel THESE OLD SHADES. 

This is the second novel of the series, and the second of the new genre of historical romance, invented by Heyer for THESE OLD SHADES and now with literally thousands of novels in its wake.   It's interesting to see the birth of a genre, and it's hard to believe it didn’t exist before: the love story in the historical setting.  I guess it's like Facebook.  Now its hard to imagine why no one thought of it before.  Why are all the best business ideas so obvious once someone has thought of them?  Brownie mix is the one that really tortures me.  Who would have thought people would pay for pre-mixed flour and cocoa powder?  I can't believe someone got rich off that one.

THESE OLD SHADES by Georgette Heyer

This was Heyer’s second book, and her first big success.  The first, BLACK MOTH, was apparently written to amuse her sick brother, and was something of a melodrama.  In this one, she hit on the formula that was to make her a fabulously wealthy woman and invented a genre at the same time.  It came out during the General Strike, and thus had no publicity.  The fact that it was still a best seller confirmed Heyer in the idea that she did not need to do interviews.

In this one, a Duke takes on a new page, and over time we learn she is in fact a girl, and through a series of unlikely events in fact the legitimate child of his greatest enemy.  They fall in love and etc.  It’s a reasonable book, and you can see she still thought of it as a book, rather than as a formula.  Next up, the sequel, DEVIL’S CUB. 

Monday, 24 June 2019


I had to give up on this one.   Let me give you a sample: 
After parking the department’s speedy beefed-up hovercar on the roof of the San Francisco Hall of Justice on Lombard street, bounty hunter Rick Deckard, briefcase in hand, descended to Harry Bryant’s office.  
I mean, snore. Let me tell you he even uses the term ‘beefed-up hovercar’ more than once.  The book is all about trying to tell who is human and who is cyborg, and focuses much on tests to tell who is which.  I propose one additional test: 100% of humans will be able to identify that the above sentence is written by a man.  And indeed the book is full of things men, particularly middle aged men, are interested in: looking tough, ignoring your wife, making tough choices where you may not be a good guy but we understand why, etc.

That said, I did enjoy learning about Philip K Dick, who led a fully bonkers life.  He was on amphetamines for years, so he could turn out books at speed.  He also had various out-of-body experiences, the most important of which was one time when sunlight hit the gold necklace of a delivery girl and he saw a ‘pink beam’ that gave him wisdom. Things go downhill from there.  As Wikipedia enjoyably puts it: “At one point, Dick felt that he had been taken over by the spirit of the prophet Elijah.”  And “In 1974, Dick wrote a letter to the FBI, accusing various people . . . of being foreign agents of Warsaw Pact powers.  He also wrote that Stanislaw Lem was probably a false name used by a composite committee operating on orders of the Communist party . . “

Now this is a book I’d be interested in reading

THE GRADUATE by Charles Webb

This book was made into a much more famous movie.  Apparently it made $100m at the box office, but poor old Charles Webb who was 24 at the time had sold the rights for just $20,000.  Apparently (according to Wikipedia) he felt the movie took away from his status as a serious artist, so he was ‘glad’ it worked out that way.  You need to tell yourself what you need to tell yourself I guess.  

In any case, it’s a great little novel, and I’m surprised that its original reviews were not good.  It tells the story of Benjamin Braddock, who comes back from university to his parent’s home in the suburbs with a good degree and everything in front of him; the only hitch is he doesn’t want everything.  Or indeed anything.  He doesn’t care about traditional success, but then he can’t seem to find anything else he does care about (even ‘travelling,’ which he briefly tries).  Then he is seduced into an affair with the wife of his father’s business partner, Mrs Robinson.  This at least arouses his interest (among other things) but then very unfortunately he meets her daughter who he falls in love with.  YIKES.

I won’t tell you how it all works out, but I will tell you this daughter is only like 22 and has had 3 marriage proposals!  People did not waste time in the 1960s.  Based on how that worked out for Mrs Robinson, who had to drop out of university to get married because she got pregnant, this is not the smartest move.  Better to do what we do today, date for like 10 years and then change your mind at the last minute in the hopes of finding someone ‘better’

Sunday, 19 May 2019

THE BLUE FLOWER by Penelope Fitzgerald

A bizarre, hilarious, and bleak book.  It's a fictionalization of the life of an obscure eighteenth century German philosopher and writer. Don't let this put off.  It focuses particularly on the part where he falls madly in love with a twelve year old.  Don't let this put you off either.  The thing's a masterpiece.  

It was written when Fitzgerald was seventy-eight years old, and it shows: this lady is no longer playing.  I can't quite tell you what is so wonderful about this book, and I also can't tell you how she does it, but I think it has something to do with the rigour and honesty that can come with old age, if we are lucky.  First, there is the joy of the way she creates the eighteenth century.  The food is horrifying. Here is a dinner: 
 . . . the soups, one made of beer, sugar and eggs, one of rose-hips and onions, one of bread and cabbage water, one of cows’ udders flavoured with nutmeg.
It sounds like a hipster restaurant in Haringey.  Or here is whats on offer at a fair they have been looking forward to - "Kesselfleish – the ears, snout and strips of fat from a pig’s neck boiled with peppermint schnapps."  One young lady has no one to take her to the fair, and is commiserated with:   
A fine young woman still, what a pity she had no affianced to treat her to a pig’s nostril!
Or here is a mother and her daughter, talking about a guest's room: 
"And there is no chair in the room where he might put his clothes at night."  "His clothes! I have not undressed myself at night, even in summer, for I think twelve years.” “And yet you’ve given birth to eight of us!” cried Sidonie.  “God in heaven spare me a marriage like yours!”
In the midst of all this domesticity is the protagonist's (Fritz) idealistic young desire to be free of earthly things and to find a logic that unites all things. He is inspired at university by the philosopher Fichte:
Fichte was speaking of the philosophy of Kant, which, fortunately, he had been able to improve upon greatly.  Kant believed in the external world.  Even though it is only known to use through our senses and our own experience, still, it is there.  This, Fichte was saying, was nothing but an old man’s weakness
He is a talker and a dreamer, who thinks he can see beyond the everyday reality of things.  Here he is talking away to a busy young woman:
…all though he could live without love, he told her, he could not live without friendship.  All was confessed, he talked perpetually.  Neither the sewing nor the forewinter sausage-chopping deterred him. 
So extreme an idealist is he that somehow when he falls in love with this twelve year old, who is not very pretty nor very bright, you somehow believe in his sincerity.  It is gross, but to be fair he does not attempt to sleep with her and in any case most women were married at fourteen.  It makes no odds, in any case, because she is dead of TB before she is fifteen, after some operations without anaesthetic that are almost as horrifying as the soups above.  Fritz marries someone else, but is dead himself in under three years, also of TB; and so are almost all his siblings. 

I mean, thank god for BCG.  I have not done a good job of explaining this novel, but that is I think because I cannot.  I need to re-read it to try and understand it.