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

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...