Sunday, 21 January 2018

MEMOIRS OF A FOX-HUNTING MAN by Siegfried Sassoon


I was surprised to find that this book, MEMOIRS OF A FOX-HUNTING MAN, is mostly about fox hunting.  I am not too sure why I thought that the title was going to be metaphorical, like maybe the fox was going to be happiness or something, but  I can report the fox is definitely an actual fox.  Sassoon really liked hunting, and thinks (perhaps justifiably) that those people buying books about fox-hunting might like it too.  And want to read about it in great detail.

Aside from the majority of the content, I quite enjoyed this book.  Sassoon is a lovely writer, and I love a good memoir.  Here's the first line: 
My childhood was a queer and not altogether happy one.
You and everybody, Siegfried.  But there follows a lovely few hundred pages of clear, unfussy prose, such as is rare to find and a joy to read.   It's simplicity that requires great skill.  Initially I struggled with some class-based rage.  Sassoon has a medium size unearned income.  He thus enjoys spending his twenties hunting (four days a week in the winter) and playing cricket (four days a week in the summer).  He has a fabulous time with his "friends" Stephen and Dick.  (I have not wikipedia-ed him, but he is for SURE gay).  He is rather exceeding his income, as horses are apparently expensive, so his guardian tries to interest him in reading law, but he reacts with horror at the idea of being trapped in a London office.  You and everybody, Siegfried.  

When the First World War comes he signs up.  The book takes an abrupt and terrible turn.  After pages of hounds and horses and hunting calls we have, in a conversation on signing up: 
It may be inferred that he had no wish that I should be killed, and that . . . but he would have regarded it as a greater tragedy if he had seen me shirking my responsibility.  To him, as to me, the War was inevitable and justifiable. Courage remained a virtue. And that exploitation of courage, if I may be allowed to say a thing so obvious, was the essential tragedy of the War, which, as everyone now agrees, was a crime against humanity.

It's a neck-stepping change of pace and environment.   If Sassoon for the first two hundred pages seems strangely childish and idealistic, with what reads to us today as a rather babyish respect for tradition and authority, he grows up fast. His friends and 'friends' start to die, and he goes through a phase of wanting to die too; as he puts it, if a man  "laid down his life for his friends it was no part of his military duties."  You know things are bad when someone starts to talk about what 'a lovely train' the 5.30 from Paddington used to be.  Truly, I can't imagine how bad things would have to get for a Londoner to reminisce fondly about their commute.  

Sassoon gets to go home on leave, and sits surrounded by paintings of his horses, realising that his "past is beginning to wear a bit thin."  Apparently the next book is MEMOIRS OF AN INFANTRY OFFICER. I'm going to try it; I'd like to see where his future goes.    


THE HISTORY OF PENDENNIS by William Makepeace Thackeray



This book is a mix of cheerful meandering and remarkable bleakness.  It is, apparently, more or less a telling of the author’s own life, and despite it being a story of mostly success and getting the girl, it made me feel rather sorry for him.  It’s remarkable how much of the book is about disillusionment, about loss, things not being what you thought they were, and success being mostly a matter of luck.  Here’s the last paragraph:
If the best men do not draw the great prizes in life, we know it has been so settled by the Ordainer of the lottery. We own, and see daily, how the false and worthless live and prosper, while the good are called away, and the dear and young perish untimely, — we perceive in every man's life the maimed happiness, the frequent falling, the bootless endeavour, the struggle of Right and Wrong, in which the strong often succumb and the swift fail: we see flowers of good blooming in foul places, as, in the most lofty and splendid fortunes, flaws of vice and meanness, and stains of evil; and, knowing how mean the best of us is, let us give a hand of charity to Arthur Pendennis, with all his faults and shortcomings, who does not claim to be a hero, but only a man and a brother.
I hope that’s not how I would ever end my memoirs. 


It’s been a while since I’ve adventured a really large Victorian, and it was cosy to be back in their verbose but orderly world.   I was having the full Alan Bennett experience
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
But it kept being disrupted when Thackeray insisted on letting me know he was not holding my hand.  He would occasionally make it clear he was writing to a male reader. Apparently ‘we’ must find ways to deal with women, and ‘we’ don’t know what women think, and so forth and so on.  I guess Thackeray’s been dead two hundred years, so it makes no odds now, but I’m sorry he didn’t think I was among the ‘we’.
I also had to laugh at how heavily he emphasized the lesson learnt by young Pendennis, which was – don’t be overconfident – after he made some bad choices at univesity.  He made it sound like that was a general lesson it would do us all good to absorb.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that’s not typically a female problem.

This was apparently written right after VANITY FAIR, and it is not a book that comes within a country mile of that one; but I enjoyed it.  Not quite managing to match up to your own masterpiece is a problem we all should be so lucky as to have.  

Sunday, 31 December 2017

WHAT I READ IN 2017

Writing this blog I realise that 2017 has been a really good reading year, because I’m struggling to narrow it down to my usual two or three favourites; so many books were special to me this year. 

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.

Lowlights were WE THAT ARE YOUNG by Preti Taneja, BEL CANTO by Ann Pratchett, and FEROCITY by Nicola Lagioia.

In other good news, I’m proud to report that I’ve managed to be about 50:50 men and women, without particularly needing to aim for female authors.  Here’s my 2017:
1.    FEROCITY by Nicola Lagioia
2.    THE TEMPLE OF THE GOLDEN PAVILION by Yukio Mishima
3.    WE THAT ARE YOUNG by Preti Taneja
7.    PANCHINKO by Min Jin Lee
11.  ALL CHANGE by Elizabeth Jane Howard
12.  ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT by Jeanette Winterson
15.  THE FRY CHRONICLES by Stephen Fry
19.  JOURNALS - CAPTAIN SCOTT'S LAST EXPEDITION by Robert Falcon Scott
33.  DESPERATE CHARACTERS by Paula Fox
38.  THE GIRL WITH THE LOWER BACK TATTOO by Amy Schumer
40.  THE PRIVATE MEMOIRS AND CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER by James Hogg
42.  BOSWELL’S LONDON JOURNAL 1762-1763 by James Boswell

I wonder if 2018 can come close.  Sneak peek: it's beginning with 800 pages of PENDENNIS by William Thackeray . . . 


FEROCITY by Nicola Lagioia

I left this book in Luxembourg, so was just wondering how to write up a blog post on it when I can't type up any extracts.  I googled without much hope and was surprised to find that the New York Times and I are almost entirely in agreement, down to the sections they quote.  This book, marketed as a mix of Franzen and Ferrante is in fact a bog-standard thriller with ideas about women that are lame even by this genre's low standards of gender equity.    Take it away, NYT:

“Ferocity,” . . .  begins with a woman, “naked, and ashen, and covered in blood,” stumbling down a highway in the middle of the night. Her toenails are painted with red polish and the bruises on her ribs stand out like ink stains against her paper-white skin. The woman — her name is Clara Salvemini — is the glamorous, good-hearted, and mysteriously self-destructive daughter of a Pugliese construction baron, but her biographical details are the least important thing about her. This is how you introduce an archetype, not a character. . .. .  After this opening scene, it is possible to predict the remainder of the novel’s plot with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Readers will not be surprised to learn that Clara was involved in an illicit underworld of drugs and sex or that the investigation into her death uncovers a tangled conspiracy that implicates her town’s most respected citizens.

THE TEMPLE OF THE GOLDEN PAVILION by Yukio Mishima

 This is the most Japanese book I have ever read. I haven't read that many Japanese books, but I think it would be hard to imagine another one besting this.  First, enjoy this hilariously tragic part of the author's bio:
After Mishima conceived the idea of The Sea of Fertility tetralogy in 1964, he frequently said he would die when it was completed.  On November 25th, 1970, the day he completed The Decay of the Angel, the last novel of the cycle, Mishima committed seppuku (ritual suicide) at the age of 45.
The book itself tells the story of a young man who is in love with a temple.  Yes, you can re-read that sentence if you like,but that's pretty much what it's about.  The young man has a serious stutter, serious issues with women, and is in training to be a priest.  It is quite interesting to see what a Zen priest's life involves.  Waking up is the 'opening of the rules'; then breakfast is 'gruel session' accompanied by the recitation of 'gruel session sutras,' while dinner is 'medicine'.   Also interesting is the fact that this takes place during the second World War, making this I think the only book I've ever read that tells the Japanese civilian experience of that war; odd, when I think of how many European and American versions of this story I've read.

There is lots of interesting hijinks, such as stealing flowers, so his friend can indulge his passion for flower arranging.  What a crime!  There is lots of moralising about this.  A Zen puzzle is brought up: A kitten enters a temple, and two monks fight over her. The Superior resolved this by cutting the kitten's head off.  Another monk responds by putting his shoes on his head.  I don't find this very puzzling: clearly, the Superior is some kind of psychopath.  However, this is not what we are supposed to get from it.  Indeed there is lots more moralising, about other topics, but especially about the beauty of the temple, and this kitten puzzle comes up a lot.  I feel like a bad person, but I couldn't follow.  And I also sort of couldn't be bothered to follow.  Temple?  Zen? Flower arranging?  Kitten murder?  An enjoyable strange last read of 2017.

WE THAT ARE YOUNG by Preti Taneja


This book came with a great cover and glowing reviews.  A Dickensian story of contemporary India?  I am so in.  But unfortunately two hundred pages later I am so out.

It is extraordinarily slow moving - there is some party that goes on for about fifty pages, during most of which the main character is thirsty and for some reason keeps telling us about it.  I mean wow.  Even Proust can only sort of get away with that kind of pace.  Also the style was just gratingly annoying.  Read the below, and if you can't see why this is annoying WE CAN'T BE FRIENDS:
She is Gargi, the key is in her hand.  How good it will feel to put it in, turn it, open Bapuji's office door.  She will lock herself inside. Alone.  The silence . . . She will order the blooms for her father's Mughal desk herself. Swollen, pink-scaled Gingers, bright orange Birds of Paradise with thirsting beaks and spiked blue tongues that pierce the air.  
I felt bad about giving up, but life is short, and so is life's potential reading list.  One thing my blog has made me realize is that I typically only read about fifty books a year - so life time, I probably can only read about three thousand books total.  That makes me feel like panicking.  There is no way WE THAT ARE YOUNG is getting one of those slots.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi

Occasionally a book takes the literary establishment's fancy, and HOMEGOING was lucky enough to be the book that did that taking this year.  It is an interesting premise, being a family story across centuries.  It begins with a pair of sisters in Ghana, one of whom is enslaved, and the other of whom becomes a slave trader's wife.  From these very different destinies their descendants' lives diverge utterly, and the book carries on through the generations, giving a chapter to one person on each side in each generation.  It is therefore essentially a series of short stories.  They are well and engagingly written, and I was impressed by how quickly the author got you to care about each new character.

I am however I find curiously unmoved by the book, and I can't quite think why.  First, perhaps there is something about it that seems a little too facile.  The American stories in particular did sometimes read a bit like a well-behaved walk through key moments of African-American history: picking cotton, being unjustly imprisoned, doing heroin, etc.  I suspect the author may be young, and might have an undergraduate degree if African-American lit or history. 

Second, I was sort of taken aback by the turn the African stories took.  As I began I was interested to see how the author in the twentieth century would manage the tension of the gulf between Ghana's $1,500 GDP per capita and the USA's $60,000 (See The Atlantic for a very interesting discussion on what black American GDP would be - clue, it's still 20x what Ghana's is).  The answer is, she doesn't; strangely, while the American stories follow a more or less 'typical' family, the African stories suddenly veer off into the atypical, following a tiny minority into the diaspora.  It feels like a weird ducking of a very important fact.  Also, troubling somehow - in these stories there is definitely no 'greatest hits' approach to Ghanaian history, with Independence barely featuring.  This I found really strange; at least for the rest of Africa, Ghanaian independence is an enormous event, a beacon for the rest of us, as Ghana crossed that finish line first.  Somehow, this bothered me.  I felt like Ghana was given the same attention as America, as if history wasn't happening there somehow.  Perhaps that's not fair; but I suppose this isn't a courtroom and I don't have to be.

Friday, 29 December 2017

A THOUSAND ACRES by Jane Smiley


Feast your eyes on this abomination of a cover.  Truly, publishers have utter contempt for women.  I can only hope that this is not based on cold hard analysis of what women actually buy, though I fear it may be.  But my god, it won the PULITZER and they make it look like something out of Hallmark. 

You have to have sympathy for women buying it hoping for Hallmark, because it is in fact a hair-raising story of child abuse and revenge, wrapped in a sort of retelling of the Lear story. 

A THOUSAND ACRES is set on a farm in Iowa, and tells about the father of three women signing over his farm to them as his health fails.  He is a terrible old tyrant, and gets worse as he gets sicker, changing his mind about the farm and making their lives miserable.  They decide not to give in to him, as they recognise how he has hurt them over the years.  The sisters manage to keep the farm from him, but lose everything else in the process, including their marriages, the respect of their community, their relationship with each other, and eventually even the farm itself, which goes to that eternal winner, the bank.  There is however something really triumphant in the bitterness with which they fight.  Here is the middle sister, Rose, dying of cancer at 37 from her hospital bed:

"I have no accomplishments.  I didn't teach long enough to know what I was doing.  I didn't make a good life with Pete.  I didn't shepherd my daughters into adulthood.  I didn't win Jess Clark.  I didn't work the farm successfully.  I was as much of a nothing as Mommy or Grandma Edith.  I didn't even get Daddy to know what he had done, or what it meant.  People around town talk about how I wrecked it all.  Three generations on the same farm, great land, Daddy a marvellous farmer, and a saint to boot." She used my hand to pull herself up in the bed.  "So all I have is the knowledge that I saw!  That I saw without being afraid and without turning away, and that I didn't forgive the unforgivable.  Forgiveness is a reflex for when you can't stand what you know.  I resisted that reflex.  That's my sole, solitary, lonely accomplishment."
Rose in many ways fights the hardest to build a new life on the farm.  Her sister visits her home after her death:
The living room, I realized, hurt me the most, because that was where Rose made her last stand . . .
I loved this evocation of the grandeur of the domestic struggle. Indeed, this book is beautifully written throughout - here Smiley is, even finding romance in a Perkins, which I would have thought impossible.  It's  the oldest sister describing the relief she feels when she gives up a life on the land for a life in the town:
I liked the same thing about that as about working my waitressing job at Perkins, where you could get breakfast, the food of hope and things to be done, any time.  There was nothing time-bound, and little that was seasonal about the highway or the restaurant.  Even in Minnesota, where the winter was a big topic of conversation and a permanent occasion for people's heroic self-regard, it was only winter on the highway a few hours of the year.  The rest of the time, traffic kept moving.  Snow and rain were reduced to scenery nearly as much as any other kind of weather, something to look out the window at but nothing that hindered you.  




Tuesday, 26 December 2017

CAKES AND ALES by W Somerset Maugham

As a teenager I loved OF HUMAN BONDAGE by W Somerset Maugham, with the love that is special to teenagers, private and intense.  I found it profound; I found it wonderful.  I was excited therefore to see CAKES AND ALE in a second hand book store, and to see it described as "the book by which Maugham most wanted to be remembered - and probably still is."

I for sure hope not, because whereas in my memory OF HUMAN BONDAGE is an extraordinarily contemporary story of finding meaning in a meangingless world, CAKES AND ALE is a strange uptight tale of an uptight young snob and his attempt to have an affair with a woman who is much too good for him.  I can't think I've ever read a more dated book. 

My key takeaway is: I'm never re-reading OF HUMAN BONDAGE.  The memory is far too precious and I don't want my adult self ruining it.


Monday, 25 December 2017

PANCHINKO by Min Jin Lee


I had actually forgotten I read another book by this author, FREE FOOD FOR MILLIONAIRES.  which is a good thing, because had I remembered I would certainly have avoided PACHINKO.  This would have been a pity, as it is a much better book.  It tells the story of multiple generations of Koreans who live in Japan and is an interesting set of human stories mixed up with a history lesson. 

It starts in the early 1900s, with a fantastic set of first lines:
History has failed us, but no matter.
At the turn of the century, an aging fisherman and his wife decided to take in lodgers for extra money . . . 
From their unspools a long and complicated family saga.  The Japanese do not come out of it very well; I guess this is not surprising; Japan is not famed for the welcome it gives immigrants.  Even into the 1980s, after multiple generations born in Japan, the Koreans still can't even get Japanese passports. 

Beyond your classic immigrant and poverty problems, the characters also need to navigate what appears to us now an extraordinarily harsh set of moral structures.  For example, a forty year old man finds out his mother was not married when she got pregnant with him.  So he has the obvious response: he kills himself.  Yup.  He's not alone.  People kill themselves left and right in this novel, apparently over basically nothing, and everyone else seems to find this pretty normal.

Also of interest is the ongoing debate about moving back to the Koreas, once they are created, with some characters wanting to move back to South Korea, but most deciding in the end for the new Communist utopia in the North.    It's an interesting example of the road that definitely should not have been taken, and about how your parents bad decisions become your own


Thursday, 21 December 2017

WAITING FOR SUNRISE by William Boyd

I enjoyed this book, but with the mildly guilty feeling that both the writer and myself were wasting our time.  

A sort of genre thriller with literary aspirations, it tells the story of a young man in 1910s Vienna.  He is an actor with erectile problems with goes on to be a spy.  It’s strong on atmosphere, on historical detail, and on fun; but it lacks plot, and, more importantly, heart.  It’s obviously written by a very capable person, but seems to lack purpose, or a reason for being.  

It was more or less a kind of popcorn.  Expensive and unusually flavoured, but popcorn all the same.  I am not sure why Boyd or I bothered.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

THE POWER by Naomi Alderman


The book had a great premise, but not so much with the plot.  However, the premise was great, so let's talk about that.  THE POWER imagines a world where women gradually acquire the ability to generate powerful electrical shocks from their own bodies.  Female readers, let me tell you, it is fun to see how the worm turns.  In some countries, like Saudi Arabia, it results in a revolution.  In Moldova, sex traffickers get what is coming to them.  I particularly enjoyed the parts where changes were less dramatic; one of the central male characters recounts with horror how frightening it has become to walk down an ordinary dark suburban street.  Welcome to our world, gents.

As women become more powerful they of course begin to abuse their power.  I was surprised how random and brutal it seemed when they force men to stay home (they are described as 'dead-eyed') though that is common in many cultures today for women.  There is also a horrible rape scene, which reminded me how rarely one reads about that kind of violence against men.  Thrillers are usually full of tortured and dead young women, so this was a fun (?) inversion too.

The book tries to resolve by having a global war.  Let's ignore that.  The fun is the premise, which worryingly, for me, read a bit like wish-fulfilment.  I guess everyone wants to be on the winning side.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead


I wanted to like this book, and I’m surprised I didn’t.  It won the Pulitzer, and for the first hundred pages or so, seemed really promising: well plotted, intricate in the world it created, tightly paced – everything you expect from the Pulitzer.  Then it kind of went off the rails. 

UNDERGROUND RAILROAD  tells the story of a slave called Cora who manages to escape from her ‘owner’.  Up to and including the escape, the story is very engaging.  Then she gets recaptured, escapes again, then she gets recaptured, escapes again – you get the idea.  I guess this could work, but Cora doesn’t really develop over the course of these various incidents.  She stays just the same, so after a while all this incident starts to read like fiction from before the Renaissance – Everyman, or Pilgrim’s Progress – where the point is not the story so much as the moral of the story.  Which could also work, but then what is the moral?  I have no idea.  What I got from it, is: slavery is bad.  Agreed.  But I think that was already clear, and made clear in much finer novels than this.  I recommend, for this lesson in the fiction, the gobsmacking: THE KNOWN WORLD by Edward P Jones, another Pulizter winner on slavery, and by far the better book.  Or THE HISTORY OF MARY PRINCE, by Mary Prince, where an escaped slave, tells you all about it herself.