Tuesday, 31 October 2017

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME by Andre Aciman

Well let's file this under DROP EVERYTHING AND START READING THIS.   It's a story about love, and youth, but also - in a complicated way - about age, and loss.  It is on the face of it a tale of a few weeks in the lives of a pair of young lovers, but is somehow also a story about their whole lives, and about how rare happiness is, and how impossible to hold on to. 

At first the enjoyment of the book is in the vivid reconstruction of a teenage crush.  I had forgotten how painful and horrible that experience is, and it makes me glad to be a grown-up.  The crush is conducted in utter secrecy, as this is the mid-eighties in Italy and the pair are both men.  This reminds us that while first love is awful, forbidden first love is far worse.  Elio, the younger of the two, experiences wild excitement and horrible self-consciousness.   Here he is reflecting on something the other man, Oliver, has said to him in passing:
"If not later, when?" What if he had found me out and uncovered each and every one of my secrets with those four cutting words?  I had to let him know I was totally indifferent to him
Oliver returns to America at the end of the summer and eventually we hear he is going to marry. Elio's father comforts him as he tries to deal with this news:
If there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don't snuff it out, don't be brutal with it. Withdrawal can be a terrible thing when it keeps us awake at night, and watching others forget us sooner than we'd want to be forgotten is no better. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything - what a waste!
Elio goes to see Olive many years later, to find the feeling is still alive between them:
.. . we'll speak about two young men who found much happiness for a few weeks and lived the remainder of their lives dipping cotton swabs into that bowl of happiness, fearing they'd use it up, without daring to drink more than a thimbleful on ritual anniversaries
The day I finished the book I went to the cinema to watch the movie.  I just somehow needed to go through it again, and, despite my summary in the first paragraph, I'm still not sure quite what to take from it. I think its something about how happiness is elusive, and to be treasured; I think it's also about death; but I can't quite put it into words.  I see that the author is a noted Proustian scholar, and that doesn't surprise me at all, though I couldn't say why exactly either. Read it and let me know what you think.  

Monday, 30 October 2017

THE FRY CHRONICLES by Stephen Fry

What I got from this book is that Stephen Fry is a very nice man in fairly urgent need of an editor.  I collected this book from a pile given away for free on the street, and read it when I ran out of books I'd actively chosen.  Keeping a sufficient flow of books arriving sometimes feels like a least a part-time job.  

The book covers Fry's time at university and the first few years afterwards. This is a brief period, but somehow takes 400 pages to tell.  This is partly because he has so much success to recount.  It is hard not to read this as a story of privilege and victory, as Fry has an agent before he leaves university and is thereafter almost always in work, going from television to West End to journalism.   

What cuts the honey is the vinegar of Fry's sadness.  I have heard he suffers from depression, and I can believe it, based on this book.  He takes an extraordinarily bleak view of many topics.  He deeply romanticises Cambridge and after a long lyrical piece on punting on May mornings, here he is: 
Don’t be too hard on them. Suppress the thought that they are all ghastly tosspots who don’t know they’re born, insufferable poseurs in need of a kick and a slap. Have some pity and understanding. They will get that kick and that slap soon enough. After all, look at them now. They are all in their fifties some of them on their third, forth or fifth marriage. Their children despise them. They are alcoholics or recovering alcoholics. Drugs addicts or recovering drug addicts. Their wrinkles, grey, bald, furrowed and fallen faces look back every morning from the mirror, those folds of dying flesh bearing not a trace of the high, joyful and elastic smiles that once lit them. Their lives have been a ruin and a waste. All that bright promise never quite matured into anything that can be looked back on with pride or pleasure. They took that job in the city, that job with merchant bank, stockbroker, law firm, accountancy firm, chemical company, drama Company, publishing company, any company. The light and energy, the passion, fun and faith were soon snuffed out one by one. In the grind of the demanding world their foolish hopeful dreams evaporated like mist in the cruel glare of the morning sun. Sometimes the dreams return to them at night and they are so ashamed, disappointed that they want to kill themselves. Once they laughed and seduced or were seduced, on ancient lawns, under ancient stones and now they hate the young and their music, they snort with contempt at everything strange and new and they have to catch their breath at the top of the stairs.
This is an extraordinarily dark view of life after college, and makes me feel very sad for Fry. 

Less sad, more revolting, as if often the case of memoirs on professions that require your parents to have money to (politics, arts, media), is the tinyness of the world involved.  The same small set of people are involved from university onwards. This is the UK for you, and I am fairly inured to it by now.  Not Fry's fault of course, and he name drops absolutely as lightly as possible, but still hard to swallow.   

COLD COMFORT FARM by Stella Gibbons

I had a bit of a DEFCON 5 moment while on holiday in Cyprus when I ran out of reading matter.  I borrowed a book from our host for a day at the beach, choosing a re-reread, Stella Gibbon's classic COLD COMFORT FARM.  I recalled this as being a delightful, easy read, about the power of a comic worldview.  It tells the story of a young woman who goes to live with her relatives in a farmhouse that is a sort of mix of the worst of Hardy, Bronte, and Laurence.  She resolves the various issues - incest, madness, etc -  with a jolly mix of common sense and cleanliness. 

I always approach re-reading with a degree of trepidation.  You don't want to risk a happy memory for an uncertain actual experience.  However, I need not have worried about COLD COMFORT FARM.   It's refreshing, as I recalled, though a good deal more dated than I remembered.  I guess what I held on to is its message - of how comedy trumps tragedy - rather than its style.  

Friday, 27 October 2017

INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison


I have a distinctly elderly version of this book, bought in a charity shop. The back cover tells us, with what I read as an air of embarrassingly incredulity:  "The hero of this blistering, mightily successful first novel, like its author, is an American negro." 

It is indeed a famous piece of African American literature, and so I wanted to like it, and at first I thought I did.  I early realised that disappointingly it is not in fact about a man who was not visible, but despite this, the beginning was still very interesting.  The lead character, who is eager for formal education, is expelled from university (for complicated reasons, largely but indirectly to do with race) and moves to New York. There follows a search for employment, and time at a paint factory -and then for me the novel started to off the rails.  There is some kind of electroshock therapy, and then some kind of strange secret political organisation, and then I lost interest.  As a teenager I would have had the discipline to push through, but as an adult I know when a book is going to bore me, and I am just not dutiful enough to the canon anymore to keep going.  I am not sure if I should be happy about that or not.   

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

CHILD 44 by Tom Rob Smith

I found this in a pile of books on the street being given away by my neighbour.  I don’t usually read thrillers, due to my strangely limited appetite for raped female corpses, which seem to be integral to the genre, but the price was right.  

Also I note that this is the first thriller to ever make the Booker longlist, so I thought it was worth a whirl.  Especially as I was going on a beach vacation, and I feel like this is the kind of book fellow beach goers like to see you reading.  (This shows my age: practically everybody was reading their phones).  In any case, one can always skip the rape scenes. 

I need not have been concerned, as this was all about child murder not women murder, and there was only one rape scene. The first lines are great: 
Since Maria had decided to die, her cat would have to fend for itself.  She'd already cared for it far beyond the point where keeping a pet made any sense. Rats and mice had long since been trapped and eaten by the villagers. Domestic animals had disappeared shortly after that. All except for one, this cat, her companion which she'd kept hidden. Why hadn't she killed it? She needed something to live for; something to protect and love - something to survive for. She'd made a promise to continue feeding it up until the day she could no longer feed herself. That day was today. She'd already cut her leather boots into thin strips, boiled them with nettles and beetroot seeds. She'd already dug for earthworms, sucked on bark. This morning in a feverish delirium she'd gnawed the leg of her kitchen stool, chewed and chewed until there were splinters jutting out of her gums 
We are in Stalinist Russia, a really fun setting for a crime story, as officially crime did not exist.  Stalin held crime to be a result of poverty, which was a result of capitalism, therefore no capitalism meant no crime.  Thus while the secret police were enormous, the regular police barely existed.  Our hero is a patriotic secret police officer who gets drawn into investigating a child serial killer.   It’s fun to watch his certainties collapse, and to visit various bits of Stalin’s empire with him, but things go down hill as Smith tries to resolve the story.  We are reduced to car/train chases (clearly written with film options in mind), to deeply unlikely scenes in which terrified villagers risk their lives “for the children” (I haven’t googled it, but based on this alone I’ll put heavy money that the author is British, as British people are creepily obsessed with children); and worst of all the final reveal that the serial killer is SPOLIER ALERT the policeman’s own brother.  SNORE. 

He even manages a happy ending, with Stalin dying conveniently, allowing some hope for our hero.  I learnt a fun fact about Stalin’s death: apparently one cause of his death was the fact that he did not receive specialist medical care, and he didn’t receive this care as he himself had just imprisoned all the specialists.  File that under karma or god having a sense of humour.



Tuesday, 24 October 2017

JOURNALS - CAPTAIN SCOT'S LAST EXPEDITION by Robert Falcon Scott

I’ll go so far as to say this book almost made me proud to be British.  This will surprise those who know me, as I am not really British, and don’t certainly approve of being proud of your nationality.  I think this is the first time I’ve ever been reduced to tears by a stiff upper lip.  And tears is putting it mildly: by the end I was full ugly crying on the Gatwick Express.

From the Introduction, I learn that Scott’s fame as an explorer rests less on his feats of exploration than on his writing abilities.  Others have done far more, but written about it less well (e.g., ten points to anyone who can say what Speke discovered); and indeed the journals are remarkably well written.  The subject matter is of course also remarkable, telling a tale of enormous, and largely pointless, human endurance.
It’s just begging for a movie, and I am sure a few must have been made.  It starts off quite cheerfully, with the departure from New Zealand on a ship, and much sea sickness.  The photographer is particularly badly hit: 
I am told that he posed several groups before the cinematograph, though obliged repeatedly to retire to the ship’s side.  Yesterday he was developing plates with the developing dish in one hand and an ordinary basin in the other!
There is also high drama.  They hit a storm, which sounds pretty horrifying to me, but Scott has been at sea since his early teens so takes it quite calmly: 
The seas were continually breaking over these people and now and again they would be completely submerged.  At such times they had to cling for dear life to some fixture to prevent themselves being washed overboard, and with coal bags and loose cases washing about, there was every risk of such hold being torn away
Once they get to Antartic he learns things about the ocean that are new to him. Next extract is long, so skip it if you like, but you’ll be missing killer whales:  
Some 6 or 7 killer whales, old and young, were skirting the fast floe edge ahead of the ship; they seemed excited and dived rapidly, almost touching the floe. As we watched, they suddenly appeared astern, raising their snouts out of water. I had heard weird stories of these beasts, but had never associated serious danger with them. Close to the water's edge lay the wire stern rope of the ship, and our two Esquimaux dogs were tethered to this. I did not think of connecting the movements of the whales with this fact, and seeing them so close I shouted to Ponting, who was standing abreast of the ship. He seized his camera and ran towards the floe edge to get a close picture of the beasts, which had momentarily disappeared. The next moment the whole floe under him and the dogs heaved up and split into fragments. One could hear the 'booming' noise as the whales rose under the ice and struck it with their backs. Whale after whale rose under the ice, setting it rocking fiercely; luckily Ponting kept his feet and was able to fly to security. By an extraordinary chance also, the splits had been made around and between the dogs, so that neither of them fell into the water. Then it was clear that the whales shared our astonishment, for one after another their huge hideous heads shot vertically into the air through the cracks which they had made. As they reared them to a height of 6 or 8 feet it was possible to see their tawny head markings, their small glistening eyes, and their terrible array of teeth--by far the largest and most terrifying in the world. There cannot be a doubt that they looked up to see what had happened to Ponting and the dogs . . . Of course, we have known well that killer whales continually skirt the edge of the floes and that they would undoubtedly snap up anyone who was unfortunate enough to fall into the water; but the facts that they could display such deliberate cunning, that they were able to break ice of such thickness (at least 2 1/2 feet), and that they could act in unison, were a revelation to us. It is clear that they are endowed with singular intelligence, and in future we shall treat that intelligence with every respect.
It can’t be a polar adventure without penguin hijinks, and here we have them aplenty as they are constantly distracting the huskies, and can’t seem to learn that dogs are dangerous to birds:
The great trouble with (the dogs) has been due to the fatuous conduct of the penguins. Groups of these have been constantly leaping on to our floe. . .  They waddle forward, poking their heads to and fro in their usually absurd way, in spite of a string of howling dogs straining to get at them. 'Hulloa,' they seem to say, 'here's a game--what do all you ridiculous things want?' And they come a few steps nearer. The dogs make a rush as far as their leashes or harness allow. The penguins are not daunted in the least,. .  . and then the final fatal steps forward are taken and they come within reach. There is a spring, a squawk, a horrid red patch on the snow, and the incident is closed.
The dogs also provide amusement as when the ice cracks under their feet they think there is some kind of small creature there, and try and hunt them down. 

As the book goes on, it ceases to be fun, or funny, and the last hundred pages are brutal.  Basically on the way to the pole the team drops off food for themselves to eat on the way back.  A group of five makes the final attempt on the pole, only to find that the Norwegian Amundsen has beaten them there.  This is awful for the men, but much worse is to come.  One of them dies (scurvey? mental breakdown?).  Then they try and make it back via the food stations they left behind.  The weather is against them, and they are running out of water.  They need to make about ten miles a day, and as they weaken – one man in particular, Oates, slowing them down - they are routinely making less than that, and the brutal math of food days remaining gets worse and worse, as it gets less and less likely they can reach the final station.  Here’s a sample:
Titus Oates is very near the end, one feels. What we or he will do, God only knows. We discussed the matter after breakfast; he is a brave fine fellow and understands the situation, but he practically asked for advice. Nothing could be said but to urge him to march as long as he could. One satisfactory result to the discussion; I practically ordered Wilson to hand over the means of ending our troubles to us, so that anyone of us may know how to do so. Wilson had no choice between doing so and our ransacking the medicine case. We have 30 opium tabloids apiece and he is left with a tube of morphine. So far the tragical side of our story.
The sky completely overcast when we started this morning. We could see nothing, lost the tracks, and doubtless have been swaying a good deal since—3.1 miles for the forenoon—terribly heavy dragging—expected it. Know that 6 miles is about the limit of our endurance now, if we get no help from wind or surfaces. We have 7 days’ food and should be about 55 miles from One Ton Camp to-night, 6 × 7 = 42, leaving us 13 miles short of our distance, even if things get no worse. Meanwhile the season rapidly advances.

They keep their spirits up, discussing what they will do when they get home, though they all are starting to know they will not being be going home.  Grit your teeth, here’s the most famous paragraphs in the diaries - Oates giving up his life for the others:
Lost track of dates, but think the last correct. Tragedy all along the line. At lunch, the day before yesterday, poor Titus Oates said he couldn’t go on; he proposed we should leave him in his sleeping-bag. That we could not do, and induced him to come on, on the afternoon march. In spite of its awful nature for him he struggled on and we made a few miles. At night he was worse and we knew the end had come.
Should this be found I want these facts recorded. Oates’ last thoughts were of his Mother, but immediately before he took pride in thinking that his regiment would be pleased with the bold way in which he met his death. We can testify to his bravery. He has borne intense suffering for weeks without complaint, and to the very last was able and willing to discuss outside subjects. He did not – would not – give up hope to the very end. He was a brave soul. This was the end. He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning – yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.
In the end, they die just 11 miles from base camp.  Their compatriots find them dead when the summer comes, with the diaries, and various terribly sad letters to their families and friends. 11 miles!  It’s makes me sad again just blogging it.  For Scott there is much consolation in the valour of human endurance and death with honour. 
We are showing that Englishmen can still die with a bold spirit, fighting it out to the end. 
 It’s 1912, so there hadn’t been a European war in century, and this long period of peace is perhaps why he felt that this was something that needed proving.  It was going to be proved a lot from 1914 onwards.  Indeed, many of the men who survive the trip to the Antartic also serve in the trenches, and if they made it through the former don’t usually make it through the latter.  It adds another layer of shadow to the story.

Scott has been much criticized for poor preparations.  For example, they run out of water because they run out of paraffin to melt snow, and they run out of that because it evaporates which is a result of the choice of the wrong kind of stoppers on their cans.  Amundsen meanwhile, in an approach I can only regard as smugly Scandinavian is properly prepared, using knowhow from the native people.  Meanwhile the British imperiously ignore local knowledge and die in totally avoidable glory.  Somehow I find I can’t really care.  Own fault or not, a slow death is sad. Scott’s is particularly so, because over the course of the few hundred pages you find you come to care about him.  This is partly because he is a fine writer, and has captured his experience really well.  You can see he has thought about writing – the cover pages of the journals have quotes he copied down.  This one I enjoyed from Robert Louis Stevenson: "No human being ever spoke of scenery for two minutes together, which makes me suspect we have too much of it in literature. The weather is regarded as the very nadir and scoff of conversational topics."  I like this both because I also dislike descriptions of scenery in novels, and because of the irony of how important weather is going to be to Scott’s own death. 
 I read the journals while on holiday on a hot beach, so Scott’s life couldn’t feel more different from mine.  But it’s so very human.  Here’s a comforting piece from an earlier diary he thought people would never see. 
 What a pleasure it must be when the right word is forthcoming at the right place, or when without trouble argument succeeds argument  .  . . I write of the future; of the hopes of being more worthy; but shall I ever be – can I alone, poor weak wretch that I am, bear up against it all.  The daily round, the petty annoyances, the ill health, the sickness of heart – how can one fight against it all.  No one will ever see these words, therefore I may freely write – what does it all mean?
 So Scott of the Antartic has the same troubles as us all.  I can't imagine we would also face the trouble with the same courage.
















Monday, 23 October 2017

VENETIA by Georgette Heyer

Heyer created the historical romance genre and writes enjoyable escapist trash.  What I particularly enjoy is the cynicism and efficiency with which she creates it.  She has various types that she recycles across her 50+ novels.  Here's wikipedia
"Heyer specialised in two types of romantic male leads, which she called Mark I and Mark II. Mark I, with overtones of Mr Rochester, was (in her words) “rude, overbearing, and often a bounder”. Mark II by contrast was debonair, sophisticated, and often a style-icon. Similarly, her heroines (reflecting Austen's division between lively and gentle) fell into two broad groups: the tall and dashing, mannish type, and the quiet bullied type"  

VENETIA is basically a Mark I, with the bullied type.  I can't recall much about it other than that, but it filled up a dull afternoon most pleasantly for me and most remuneratively for her estate. 
 

THE EVERYTHING STORE by Brad Stone

Read for work

Sunday, 22 October 2017

CASTING OFF by Elizabeth Jane Howard


This is the fourth of five novels written about an English family during the second world war.  It gives the strange thrill of time travel, because it was written by a woman who was an adult during the war, and so can remember it well, but who only wrote about it fifty years later.  It thus combines detailed historical record with a modern sensibility; it bursts with period detail but also with lesbians, abortions, and urine.  I've never felt so much like I was actually getting chance to know what the past was 'really' like.  

The cast is huge and covers multiple years.  It's a remarkable feat of imagination and detail.  At the end, when a character mentions a childhood prank, I felt myself tearing up, as if it was my childhood; in fact it was only about two thousand pages previously.  I sped through these books at disgusting speed.  It was like I  was mainlining plot.

I had assumed in reading it that it must be in some part autobiographical. The characters are so specific and eccentric, that I felt it could only be drawn from life.  I learn from Google that indeed it is largely based on the author's family.  A central character is married at 19 to a man of 32, just as the author was.  Unsurprisingly, this did not work out (though bizarrely her real life husband was the son of Scott of the Antartic, whose journals I read just before this - it's a small world among the wealthy British).  

I learnt a great many things from these books about the middle years of this century, including that people had abortions without making a big deal about it; that women entered the workforce in huge numbers; that most girls didn't expect to enjoy sex; that the war meant most homes were very cold and that powdered eggs are a thing.

The patriarchy and sound commercial judgement mean these novels are packaged like some kind of particularly twee and mumsy chick lit (just like Ferrante's Neapolitan trilogy), but don't let that put you off - these are wonderful books.

CONFUSION by Elizabeth Jane Howard

See summary of this quartet here

MARKING TIME by Elizabeth Jane Howard

See summary of this quartet here.

THE LIGHT YEARS by Jane Elizabeth Howard


See summary of this quartet here.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

THE BOTTLE FACTORY OUTING by Beryl Bainbridge

This is a doom-laden little book.  From the first page, you know things will go wrong: and not in a good way; not in a the-evil-will-be-punish'd kind of way.  It's more in a modern, literary kind of way, that is: life is unfair and we are all incapable of making change in ourselves or in the world.  Utterly unsurprisingly, this book was shortlisted for the Booker.  The Booker loves to reward novels with this kind of message. 

I can't deny it is well and tautly written.  It draws you horribly into the tale of a deeply pathetic attempt to organise an outing at a Factory.  The outing is organised by a girl named Freda, and as she is the only hopeful or impactful character in the piece naturally Bainbridge ensures she is punished by the narrative.  She dies on the outing, and of course not through any actual choice, but just in a stupid accident.  Then the other workers are afraid this will get them into trouble, so they cover up the death.  And that's it.  God I loathed this book.