Sunday, 4 December 2016


This book, written in 1959, is apparently a famous progenitor of the modern supernatural thriller. Shirley Jackson is well know as the literary mother of Steven King. The story begins with an elderly scientist who invites a group of people to come to study an old house with him - Hill House - which has a long and strange history. The group includes a wealthy young man, heir to the house; a beautiful young lady who as a child experienced a poltergeist; and our main character, a young woman who has spent much of her life unhappily caring for her invalid mother. Here's a rather fabulous description of her:
Eleanor Vance was 32 years old when she came to Hill House. The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister. She disliked her brother-in-law and her five-year-old niece, and she had no friends.

The book has most of the bare bones of what we'd recognise in such a story. There is the house the locals won't visit, the curious scientist, the nightly visits by the unexplained, and of course the death at the end. But in many ways it's less fun than what we now know as the genre. First of all, the group fully believes from the beginning that the house is evil. Thus we are denied the joy of the slow revelation to unprepared and attractive young people. Second, despite the setup, the wealthy young man and the beautiful young woman never get together. Thus, we are denied anybody creeping around the house in their underwear at midnight, which obviously should always be a key ingredient of such a story. Lastly the body count is depressingly sparse, with only one death. Admittedly, it's the narrator's, which is dramatic, but I could have done with a couple more. We're bloodythirsty up in here in the twenty first century.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

THE DEATH OF THE HEART by Elizabeth Bowen

I don't really know what was going on in the 1930s in Europe, but damn, the literature of that period is tortured. And it's not tortured in some kind of physical, comprehensible way; their worries are all very non-physical, or metaphysical, or something. This book tells the story of a 16-year-old girl, who after the her mother has died, has to go and live with her half-brother in London. Predictably, everybody is very tortured about this. There are lots of scenes where drinking tea is agony.

Things ramp up a level when a young man who had previously been flirting with the half-brother's wife becomes interested in the 16-year-old girl. There is some early flirtation, and then immediately . . . to the drama! He goes on about how he doesn't know why he can't open up to her; why he loves her, but not in a way she can understand; about how he is weighted down by her expectations. She is completely mystified. A contemporary reader is somewhat less so. GIRL, HE IS OBVIOUSLY GAY. Get over it.

Falling in love with a gay man is by no means an unknown problem in the modern world, but at least today you know what you are doing, and you can ascribe your issue to what it is: ie, your sexuality, rather than your soul.

Elizabeth Bowen is thought by some to be among the most accomplished of 20th-century novelists. On the evidence of this book, I am not among the some

Sunday, 27 November 2016


CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY is a classic of South African fiction. It was described by Nadine Gordimer as "the most influential South African novel ever written".

I can't quite understand why. I can only assume it is because the message it gives - that black people in South Africa in the 1940s are unjustly and entirely oppressed - which now seems so obvious, was, at the time it was written, revolutionary.

The book tells the story of a elderly black pastor from the rural areas who goes to Johannesburg to find his son. As is traditional for sons who go to Johannesburg, he has gone to the bad - but badder than most: he has shot a white man in a home invasion, and is sentenced to death. The old man's search for his son, and then the reconciliation he attempts with the father of the murdered white man, gives a picture of the whole of South Africa in one small sad story.

What did surprise me in this book was the account of the scale of the violent crime in South Africa at that time. For some reason, I thought extreme and random violence was a more contemporary problem; but apparently it has been an issue for almost as long as Joburg has been a city
We shall live from day to day, and put more locks on the doors, and get a fine fierce dog when the fine fierce bitch next door has pups, and hold onto our handbags more tenaciously; and the beauty of the trees by night, and the raptures of lovers under the stars, these things we shall forego. We shall forego the coming home drunk and through the midnight streets, and the evening walk over the star-lit veld. We shall be careful, and knock this off our lives, and knock that off our lives, and hedge ourselves about with safety and precaution. And our lives will shrink, but they shall be the lives of superior beings; and we shall live with fear, but at least it will not be a fear of the unknown.

I come from a fairly dangerous city - not a Joburg, but certainly not an Amsterdam; not a city where you walk around after dark; and I never really thought before about the many small choices a society makes over time that end up with a situation where it feels normal to never ever be out after dark without a car wrapped around you


God, this novel has a great first line:
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there
I bet when Hartley thought of that, he was like BOOM.

The book opens with a man finding a box of stuff from his school days, full of bits of old junk and a diary.
It was a roll-call in reverse; the children of the past announced their names, and I said "here". Only the diary refused to disclose its identity.
This diary opens the door to a rather painful coming of age story. A young man called Leo goes to spend the summer with his school friend Marcus. He gets involved in carrying letters between Marcus' wealthy sister, and a local farmhand. It's an interesting book, because the main action happens 'offstage.' It's this love story where the main action is happening, and we just see it through the eyes of the go-between. It all ends very badly, almost impossibly so for a contemporary reader, for whom the chasm of class is hard to understand. The book's narrator is an older man, living in the 1950s, looking back to his own boyhood at the turn of the century, and much of the appeal I think is the evocation of the mystery and melancholy of our own past; of how little our choices are in retrospect our own, but rather a product of our moment.

Also enormously successful this is evocation of schoolboy life at the turn of the last century. How is this:
But in those days schoolboys seldom called each other by their first names. These were regarded simply as a liability, though not such a heavy liability as one's middle name, which it was just foolhardy to reveal.

Or this:
Schoolboys have a much clearer perception of each other's characters than grown-ups have, for their characters are not obscured by a veil of good manners: they deal in hard words, they have no long-term policy, as men have, for asserting themselves, they prefer short profits and quick returns

It's a wonderful book, and I'm surprised it's not more well known. Or perhaps it is, and I just missed it? If so, don't make my mistake

Sunday, 20 November 2016


This book solidified for me something I think I'd always known -something we all know - but which I'd never quite put into words: Tina Fey is just much better than Amy Poehler. I know! I feel bad to say it. But it's just true. I read Amy Poelher's YES PLEASE, and couldn't quite understand why she'd written it. It didn't seem to have much point, But now I get it - clearly, she wanted to write BOSSYPANTS. Who wouldn't? It's a really fun little book. I can't quite tell you what makes this book so appealing. It's partly that it's comic. Here for example is a mother's prayer for her daughter:
Lead her away from acting but not all the way to finance. Something where she can make her own hours but still feel intellectually fulfilled and get outside sometimes and not have to wear high heels

Grant her a rough patch from 12 to 17. Let her draw horses and be interested in Barbies for much too long, for childhood is short – a tiger flower blooming magenta for one day – and adulthood is long, and dry humping in cars will wait

It's also very wise:
A friend once told me, "don't wear what fashion designers tell you to wear. Where what they wear." His point being that the most designers, no matter what they throw onto the runway, favour simple, flattering pieces for themselves

And full of fine observation:
At a certain point your body wants to be disgusting. While your teens and 20s without identifying and emphasizing your "best features, "your late 30s and 40s are about fighting back decay. You pluck your patchy beard daily. Your big toe may start to turn jauntily inward. Over night you may grow one long straight white pubic hair.

I recommend it. It made a long flight fly by.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins

I have apparently now become the sort of person who occasionally reads mass market thrillers. Does this mean I am losing my youthful idealism? My mental energy? Or does it just mean I was in an airport and was facing flying back across the Atlantic for the fourth time in ten days? Anyway never mind, there it is: I've been reading a best seller.

It was kind of fun book, with a female central character who was, for once, not strong. Indeed, she is an unreliable narrator and that is where half the fun of the novel lies. Paula Hawkins is Zimbabwean, I'm proud to say, but she's obviously lived in London:
We used to go to that pub all the time; I can't remember why we stopped. I never liked it all that much, too many couples just the right side of 40 drinking too much and casting around for something better, wondering if they'd have the courage

Yes, that's definitely a common London scene.. I won't tell you too much else about the book. It's a thriller so it's hard not to give away spoilers. All I'll let you know is that I read it, and I can't decide what it means about me that I enjoyed it.

Sunday, 6 November 2016


I didn't like this book at first because it was so dreamlike and weird. Then I started to like it, because it was so dreamlike and weird.

Set in the near future, or what was the near future in the 1960s (which is now, I suppose, the past) it tells the story of a world grown too hot and of all the major cities underwater. It's a pretty contemporary view of the apocalypse. The story centres on a man called Kerans, who is a scientist conducting tests. Most of humanity is clustered in the Arctic Circle, but he is way south, in England. His team is recalled as the water keeps rising. He refuses to return. Here is where it gets weird. The world is regressing to a past age - the Triassic - with huge plants appearing, alligators everywhere, etc. So human beings are apparently also regressing back to a more primal sort of life form. Kerans, and some of the other scientists, are beginning to lose their humanity, their individuality, and frankly they're rather liking lettin it go. It's the joy of the lower life form.

The key delight of this book is this vision of abandoned cities. Here they are in drained London:
They stood in the entrance to one of the huge cinemas, sea urchins and cucumbers flickering faintly across the tiled floor, sand dollars flowering in the former ticket booth. Beatrice gathered her skirt in one hand, and they moved slowly down the line of cinemas, past cafes and amusement arcade, patronised now only by the bivalves and the molluscs

That sort of thing is the heart of the book really. But aware that this doesn't fill very many pages, Ballard does a reasonable job of knocking together a few other characters and a bit of a plot. A bunch of pirates arrive, and managed to drain the city he is in. Leicester Square appears spookily out of the water, fountains full of weeds. In a half-hearted way Kerans falls in love with strange woman called Beatrice.

While Ballard may be prescient when it comes to rising seawater, he, like other science-fiction writers of the mid-20th century is extremely un-prescient about the rise of women. Beatrice is beautiful and useless, a woman of the 1940s stranded in what's supposed to be the 21st-century. It's an odd blindspot across vritually all classic science fiction that I can think of. They can imagine a flying car, a zombie apocalypse, a cyborg nation, but a lady with a mind of her own: let's not be crazy.