Monday, 2 April 2018


I can't think that I have ever liked a book so much that immediately after finishing it I started it again.  Enter CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS.  

I read it twice last week, back-to-back.  The second time I wasn't exactly reading it, so much as examining it, trying to figure out how it worked.  On paper it doesn't sound like the sort of book I would like: it's about a 21 year old woman, Frances, who is in an intense but poorly defined relationship with another woman, as well as having an affair with a 32 year man who is likewise is]n an undefined relationship that involves him being married.  

Sounds dreadful, doesn't it?  It feels like one of those narratives where everyone is annoyingly at the mercy of their feelings and it is clear  that the intention is to challenge the reader to learn to be less bourgeois.  And yet somehow it's actually a really appealing set of love stories with no (alright, minimal) lecturing, from which everyone emerges somewhat improved.  

I've concluded that a large part of the appeal is the sparkling contemporary dialogue, particularly some of the best use of IM and email I've ever read.  I've actually only just noticed while writing this sentence that the title of the novel is CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS, suggesting that Rooney may know what she is doing.  Here is a fun sample of a conversation between Frances and her 'girlfriend':
So how bad is this crush, from one to ten?  she said.  Ten being the kind of crush you had on me in school.
And one being a really serious crush?
She laughed, even though her mouth was full of cereal bar.
Whatever, she said. Is it like, you have fun talking to him online, or like, you want to tear him open and drink his blood?
There's something very acutely observed about the way Rooney looks at modern relationships.  Here for example Frances is having bad sex on a Tinder date:
I let myself become rigid and silent, waiting for Rossa to notice my rigidity and stop what he was doing, but he didn't.  I considered asking him to stop, but the idea that he might ignore me felt more serious than the situation needed to be.  Don't get yourself into a big legal thing, I thought.  I lay there and let him continue.  
There is also a lot of fun in the recreation of the world of the very young adult.  This may be in part because Rooney is -  brace yourself - just 26 years old herself.  Here is Frances on her plans for the future:
I hadn't been kidding with Philip about not wanting a job.  I didn't want one.  I had no plans as to my future financial sustainability: I never wanted to earn money for doing anything.  . . . Though I knew I would eventually have to enter full-time employment, I certainly never fantasized about a radiant future where I was paid to perform an economic role.  Sometimes this felt like a failure to take an interest in my own life, which depressed me.  On the other hand, I felt that my disinterest in wealth was ideologically healthy.  
There are a few false notes - British writers like 'self-harm' as a narrative device almost as much, and use it almost as cynically, as they do 'child abuse' - but other than these few caveats, I would whole heartedly recommend it.  I'm still turning it over in my mind, trying to figure out what is about it that is so wonderful.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

SEALED by Naomi Booth

For a sci-fi novel to be successful, it always has to be about something other than sci-fi.  And that 'something other' comes from the short list of human concerns we all know: love, loss, death, etc.  This sci-fi novel is extraordinarily successful, and this comes in part from a quirky and original premise, but also because it is actually about something quite unusual too: birth. 

Alice is heavily pregnant.  Herself and her partner move to a rural part of Australia to get away from the increasing toxicity of the city, and from what Alice thinks is a outbreak of a dangerous disease, called Cutis, which means your skin starts to close over your orifices.  Alice is hugely worried - she will only eat so called 'protected' foods; she washes herself after it rains; she thinks the government is covering up how bad Cutis is.  Part of the success of the book is that it is unclear how much of this is her imagination and how much real.  One reason she loves her partner Pete is that he is so much more relaxed than her, though of course, human relationships being what they are, this also annoys her.

The countryside has its own issues.  The health services are shutting down.  People are being evacuated in preparation for a 'heat event,' though they believe this is just a ruse to move them somewhere more central so services can be provided more cheaply.    It all has an eerily plausible feel.

I won't give away everything that happens, but let's just say Cutis attacks the orifice most important for child birth, and a kitchen knife is involved.  And yet, bloodshed aside, the novel is actually about hope, and about how you can have new beginning, even at the end of the world.  It's hard to explain. You'll have to read it to find out.  I recommend you do: it's a very fine novel.  Unless of course you are pregnant, in which case DEFINITELY DON'T.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

A WHOLE LIFE by Robert Seethaler

Why is it that any book which tells the story of someone's life from beginning to end is always a sad book?  Even if the central character has a happy life, the story is somehow always still sad.  I guess it's because while you can win the battle - even all the battles - you can never win the war.  No matter how many dangers you dodge, or narrow escapes you manage, or serial killers you avoid over the course of a whole life, you're always dead at the end. 

This book tells the story of a life that didn't win that many battles, never mind the war.  It's about a man called Andreas who lives in a village in the German mountains.  He is orphaned, then abused by an uncle, then loses his wife to an avalanche, then gets conscripted into the army and is a prisoner of war, then comes home and lives alone in a shack.  And all the time you know he's just going to die at the end.

It's beautifully written, and wise, but really I found it annoying.  Perhaps this is because I am still young enough to be in rebellion against death in general.  But perhaps also it is because Andreas is so annoying.  He is the strong, silent, and apparently half-witted type, who recounts the various horrors he endures in a grating monotone.  Once, near the end of of his life he decides to leave his village on impulse, on the local bus, to see what is beyond his valley.  He has a panic attack in the car park and the bus driver has to help him home.  Perhaps I should feel sorry for him but really I'm just like: Get your shit together.  Honestly.   

Sunday, 11 February 2018


Regular readers may recall my reading of MEMOIRS OF A FOX HUNTING MAN, which was - astonishingly - about fox hunting.  You would have thought I would be well prepared for the second book in the trilogy, MEMOIRS OF AN INFANTRY OFFICER, to be about the Infantry, but I am not sure anyone can really be prepared for what Sassoon went through.  Here is a representative sample of his experience, as an officer in the first World War:
Shell-twisted and dismembered, the Germans maintained the violent attitudes in which they had died. The British had mostly been killed by bullets or bombs, so they looked more resigned. But I on remember a pair of hands (nationality unknown) which protruded from die soaked ashen soil like the roots of a tree turned upside down; one hand seemed to be pointing at the sky with an accusing gesture. Each time I passed that place the protest of those fingers became more expressive of an appeal to God in defiance of those who made the War.  Who made the War? I laughed hysterically as the thought passed through my mud-stained mind. But I only laughed mentally, for my box of Stokes-gun ammunition left me no breath to spare for an angry guffaw. . . . . Such sights must be taken for granted, I thought, as I gasped and slithered and stumbled with my disconsolate crew. Floating on the surface of the flooded trench was the mask of a human face which had detached itself from the skull.
I for sure was not prepared for this, and neither was Sassoon.  Particularly horrible is the periods when his regiment knows they must 'go over the top' at a certain time or date.    The majority of them know they will not survive it, and the waiting is almost more terrible to read about than the fighting itself.  

Sassoon is great at quickly describing a person, and it is unnerving how often he brings someone to life, only immediately to casually kill him (they did not survive to the Autumn . . I heard he died two weeks later . . etc).  It especially awful how many of them are just eighteen or nineteen.  He has huge admiration for the courage of his comrades, and his previous ideas as to class crumble quickly.  
As we entered it I noticed an English soldier lying by the road with a horribly smashed head; soon such sights would be too frequent to attract attention, but this first one was perceptibly unpleasant. At the risk of being thought squeamish or even unsoldierly, I still maintain that an ordinary human being has a right to be momentarily horrified by a mangled body seen on an afternoon walk, although people with sound common sense can always refute me by saying that life is full of gruesome sights and violent catastrophes. But I am no believer in wild denunciations of the War; I am merely describing my own experiences of it; and in 1917 I was only beginning to learn that life, for the majority of the population, is an unlovely struggle against unfair odds, culminating in a cheap funeral. Anyhow the man with his head bashed in had achieved theoretical glory by dying for his country in the Battle of Arras, and we who marched past him had an excellent chance of following his example.
We leave these MEMOIRS just when Sassoon is planning to publicly denounce the war in the newspaper, probably leading to his courtmartial.  He's furious at Generals who don't understand what they are asking of troops, at civilians, at churches, at anyone who speaks badly of the Infantry - even German infantry. I'm definitely going to read the next book; he looks like he is going to survive the war - the question for me is how he manages to survive the peace.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

CHERRY by Mary Karr

This is a story of a wild adolescence in Texas.  The most interesting part was about sex.  Perhaps this is unsurprising.  But what surprised me was that it was about a girl wanting to have sex. There was a lot of crushes, and dates, and deflowering.  It made me realise how rarely one reads about women wanting sex.  I have read so very very many books about male desire (Roth's PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT; Miller's appalling TROPIC OF CANCER); and suddenly reading this one I was aware of how little I'd read about women.  I can't believe i never really noticed this before.  No wonder men so often think we're not up for it.

Less interesting was the extensive drug experimentation.  Writing about tripping is as dull as writing about your dreams, but druggies rarely seem aware of this.  Even recovering addicts, whose books are all about how drugs destroyed their lives, often have the idea that it is interesting for you to hear about this time a kitten turned into a flower.   This book has lots of that, so I mostly skipped those bits.  I felt a bit bad; I always feel bad when I find memoirs boring, because they are the actual story of someone's life.  No doubt, we all think we are interesting.

I was also a little annoyed by the author's clear conviction that she had a tough childhood.  There is lots in here about how awful small town Texas was, which is a little hard to take.  She had two parents and a car and a free public school to go to.  It's not exactly Darfur.

I did find one great piece of wisdom in this book.  I do on some level read to learn, and I didn't exactly expect this book to be a source of profound insight.  But here it is; the advice of the girl's mother on competing with other girls:  YOU JUST HAVE TO BE SMARTER THAN THOSE WHO ARE PRETTIER, AND PRETTIER THAN THOSE WHO ARE SMARTER.

If I ever have a daughter, I'm giving that to her as a crossstitch sampler the year she turns thirteen.

(If interested, I recall I have also read another book by Karr, about her descent into alcoholism - LIT)

Sunday, 28 January 2018

TIES by Domenico Starnone

This is a fine novel, translated from the Italian, about a man who leaves his wife and children for a graduate student twenty years his junior.  Eventually he gives her up and goes back to them.  In many stories this would be a story about a mistake that ends in redemption.  TIES is the reverse.  The affair is the redemption; and returning to the wife and small children is the mistake.  The novel is set some thirty years after the affair,  and we see how both husband and wife's lives have been wasted; the one in staying in a relationship in which he is not truly interested; the other, in dishing out revenge on a daily basis for decades.    Sometimes being happy takes courage.

Affairs are rarely positive in fiction, which is I think interesting.  Does this reflect life?  Or does this reflect a morality we wish applied to life?  In any case, TIES is an unusual and very excellent upending of the traditional story.  It made me wonder what is going on in Italian fiction.  It reminded me of the remarkable Italian author Elena Ferrente, and her novel DAYS OF ABANDONMENT, which tells a similar story from the wife's perspective (and very similar; Naples, elderly upstairs neighbour, smallish children).  Then you guys I googled it and, Starnone and Ferrante are not just both Italian authors, and not just both from Naples, and not just both married, but they are married to each other.   This somehow confounds me.  What a strange joint literary project.  I don't know why, but I find it kind of sleazy.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

THE ADVERSARY by Emmanuel Carrere

This is a French true crime novel.  Why am I reading it?  Who knows.  I can't even remember where I found it.  I do love true crime TV, but am typically too embarrassed to be buying true crime fiction.  Perhaps it being French gave it a veneer of respectability.  Anyway, I'm glad I read it, because it tells of a truly fascinating and bizarre crime.  Actually, the crime itself is not so fascinating, or bizarre.  Some man kills his wife, children, and parents.  I mean in America this is hardly even a crime.  What makes it interesting is that the murderer, Jean-Claude Romonde, an apparently boring bourgeois family man, has been living a life of total deception before the murders for almost twenty years.  It takes some going for the mass murder you commit to be the least interesting part of your life story.

It all starts in his second year at University, where he oversleeps and misses his last exam.  Instead of just retaking the exam, he decides to pretend he has passed.  He continues to pretend to his friends that he is a student, and to buy books, and study, and walk around the hospital, for the next five years, until he 'graduates' with the rest of them.  He marries his college sweetheart, and moves on to pretending he is a high profile doctor at the WHO.  In fact, he just goes to their lobby and sits there for a bit, before going to sleep in a lay-by.  Then he goes home.  And he does this for twenty years!  Sometimes he pretends to go on a business trip, checking into the airport hotel for a few days, and reading the guide book for where he is supposed to be.   

He also does a lot of 'investing' for his family and friends - in fact, just stealing their money to fund his lifestyle of daytime napping.  So for years he knows that the whole thing must come to an end at some point.  When it does - when someones asks for their money back - he responds by killing everybody + the family dog.  I mean, wow.


Mindy Kaling begins this book by answering a few questions: 
This sounds okay, but not as good as Tina Fey's book.  Why isn't this more like Tina Fey's book?
It's true.  Tina Fey's book is much better.  So is Amy Schumer's.  Amy Poehler's on the other hand is much worse.   Why have I read books by pretty much all the female American comedians?  I don't know.  I wouldn't have even thought I cared about them as a group.  It's a bit like when Netflix's algorithm identifies a theme in shows you might be interested in, like  "shows with strong female leads" and it's the revelation of hangups you didn't even know you had.

In any case, perhaps the quality is not especially important. Here is another question: 
I don't know.  I have a lot of books already.  I wanted to finish those GIRL WITH A DRAGON TATTOO books before the movies come out.This book will take you two days to read.  Did you even seen the cover?  It's mostly pink.  If you're reading this book every night for months, something is not right.
This is also true.  I had terrible jet lag, so I read it in a day.   It was fun and perky.  I was struck by her confidence.  Most of her professional issues seem to come from over-confidence, which is really unusual for a woman. 

The main thing however I will remember from this book is the description of one great truth which, in a lifetime of reading, I have never before seen described in writing.  This was the chapter entitled "Why Do Men Put On Their Shoes So Slowly?" A profound question.  Sample:

Why do all the men I know put their shoes on incredibly slowly? When I tie my shoelaces I can do it standing, and I’m out the door in about ten seconds. (Or, more often, I don’t even tie my shoelaces. I slip my feet into my sneakers and tighten the laces in the car.) But with men, if they are putting on any kind of shoe (sneaker, Vans, dress shoe), it will take twenty times as long as when a woman does it. It has come to the point where if I know I’m leaving a house with a man, I can factor in a bathroom visit or a phone call or both, and when I’m done, he’ll almost be done tying his shoes. 
There’s a certain meticulousness that I notice with all guys when they put their shoes on. First of all, they sit down. I mean, they need to sit down to do it. Right there, it signals, “I’m going to be here for a while. Let’s get settled in.” I can put on a pair of hiking boots that have not even been laced yet while talking on my cell phone, without even leaning on a wall.

This topic, of men taking forever to put their shoes on, is one I have wondered at many times myself, but I thought it was just me.  Now having read this, and then googled it (do this, there is an incredible number of hits on this topic), I am only amazed that men have time to run the patriarchy.  I really don't know how they squeeze it in.  Maybe this is why powerful men tend to wear loafers.

Sunday, 21 January 2018


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


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
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
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.


 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.