Friday, 17 July 2015

AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER by Mario Vargas Llosa

I've read one other book by Vargas Llosa, the wonderful terrifying THE FEAST OF THE GOAT, which I bought because it was the only English language book on sale in Acapulco airport. I then read in one stint over a twelve hour bus ride through Mexico. A book that frightening should not be read on your own, and certainly not without any breaks. It's about the Dominican Republic, making it my second favourite book about a country I can't even find on a map. (Favourite: THE BRIEF AND WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO).

THE FEAST OF THE GOAT has that great essential of a good novel: a plot. AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER, unfortunately, does not. It alternates, chapter by chapter, between a quite acceptable premise - 18 year old man falls in love with his much older aunt - with a selection of short stories which are unrelated and annoyingly unfinished. Vargas Llosa is so talented that unwillingly I kept getting interested in the short stories, even though I knew they would not end. I think it's all just showing off. What's he trying to say? Surprise surprise, life lacks narrative coherence? WE KNOW THAT. That's why we read novels.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

MANSFIELD PARK by Jane Austen

MANSFIELD PARK was one of my A-level set books, and being an anxious student, I probably read it nine or ten times over the period of that course. Once I'd written the exam, just seeing the Penguin cover was enough to make me nauseous. I therefore haven't opened it since I skimmed it on that exam day, which, horrifyingly, is now almost twenty years ago, though I can still easily call up that exam room smell as if I was there last week.

MANSFIELD PARK has always been my least favourite Austen, largely because it contains my least favourite Austen heroine, Fanny, who is a total drip. This is not helped by the fact that Austen likes to refer to her as "my dear Fanny" - actually wait maybe that does help a bit. Books do tend to change over the years, so I was surprised to find that this one was actually much as I remembered it - Fanny's still a drip, I'm afraid. The only thing which struck me anew on this reading was how very moral a story it is. It's very much about the value of stillness, and stern principle, and about how seductive and charming and finally dangerous is the reverse. I don't know why this didn't strike me as a teenager? Perhaps I was more convinced then of the value of principle, and so it struck me as simply true, rather than as a moral position. But it's very clear. Here's Austen's summary, near the end: "Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly at fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest." Jeez.

Let's be clear here people. I say it's my least favourite Austen. That's still puts it among the best books ever written.

THE ROSIE PROJECT by Graeme Simsion

This book proves that originality is not needed for success. It's a very basic concept of opposites attracting: socially awkward boy meets socially able girl. Various misunderstanding accrue, they get together in the end.

For all that it's charming.

EQUAL RITES by Terry Pratchett

It seems I can't turn my back on a book for even a decade or so without it changing. Who is rewriting these things in my absence? SENSE AND SENSIBILITY: When did that become such a morality tale? MIDDLEMARCH: what's this new plot? EQUAL RITES: Well, we won't bother with the plot, because Pratchett is never about the plot; but sadly, so sadly, it's not as funny as I remember. I loved Terry Pratchett as a teenager, and it's sad to see that he or I have changed. It almost makes me scared to go back to other much loved books; I think I'd rather have my memory of the book I loved, rather than the book itself.

THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt

Well here's a book I gobbled up over a couple of nights. It's that very unusual thing, a smart and worthwhile book that's also a serious page turner. Here's how it begins: 'Does such a thing as 'the fatal flaw,' that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn't. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs."

I mean a longing for sex, yes. Money, yes. Power, definitely. But the picturesque? And yet that's what this story is about. The plot may be summarized as: young man becomes overly involved with his classics class.

The young man in question is a freshman in college when he gains admission to a tight little clique focused on the Ancient Greeks, and over time we learn that they harbour a big secret. They have been trying to live the life of the Ancient Greeks, up to and including attempting to meet with Dionysus in the woods of Vermont, and as part of this bizarre project have unintentionally killed a farmer. One member of the group, Bunny, a somewhat unstable young man, begins to suggest he is going to tell people about the murder. The group try and placate him by pandering to all of his whims, but slowly they realise that they are going to need to find a more permanent solution. So this time it's an intentional killing - but it doesn't end their problems, because now they all begin to fear that the others will tell. I won't give away what goes on after that, except to say that the book carries on to explore what it would mean if we really tried to live the life of the Ancient Greeks - sibling sex and all.

The key lesson I learned is: always commit your murders on your own.

THE PRIVATE MEMOIRS AND CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER by James Hogg

The first appeal of this book is that the author was an eighteenth century shepherd who taught himself to read. It’s not so often that the ...