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. 

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Saturday, 21 September 2019

FLAMETHROWERS by Rachel Kusher



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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.

TO CALAIS, IN ORDINARY TIME by James Meek

I started reading this book in the glorious pre-pandemic days of one week ago when COVID was some Chinese problem.   It begins as a medi...