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.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

STET: AN EDITOR’S LIFE by Diana Athill



Sometimes after I have greatly enjoyed a book by a little-known author, I am tempted to read more from them.  This is almost always a mistake.  I really enjoyed Diana Athill’s story of her big break-up, INSTEAD OF A LETTER, and so threw caution to the winds and purchased STET, the story of her career in publishing.  I should have held on tight to that caution.   I can’t quite tell why it was so dull, as the raw material is promising: plucky young Hungarian (ie Andre Deutsch) and disappointed English debutante create publishing start-up that goes on to big success. 

"The story began with my father telling me: ‘You will have to earn a living.’  He said it to me several times during my childhood (which began in 1917), and the way he said it implied that earning one’s living was not quite natural."

I wonder if this is part of the problem.  She was not of a class or a gender that ever had to work, so doesn’t seem to regard work as part of her own personal story.  She is bizarrely disconnected from the highs and lows of the journey, and descends to that lowest low of the upper class English memoir, name-dropping.  (Nadir of this style: Antonia Fraser’s horrifying MUST YOU GO: MY LIFE WITH HAROLD PINTER).  I did however find it useful for recommendations on what to read next, and so am picking my way through Deutsh’s back catalogue, finding such gems as the deeply obscure Zimbabwean memoir THE TOE-RAGS.  So that's something.


Sunday, 15 October 2017

THE TOE-RAGS by Daphne Anderson

The subtitle says it all: "The story of a strange upbringing in Southern Rhodesia."  Strange it certainly is.  South Rhodesian, not so much - at least today - as Southern Rhodesia is now Zimbabwe.  I would summarise by saying this is basically a story about being a poor white.  But I mean a really poor white.  The author and her siblings grow up in the rurals outside Rusape.  They get close to starving.  Their mother walks out on them when they are in junior school, to run off to Joburg with her husband's brother.  Now there's a novel I'd like to read, and I don't find her behaviour so very indefensible in itself, except she runs off when both her husband and her domestic worker are away.  Luckily the worker comes home early, so the kids end up at the police station rather than the morgue. 

Then its on to their relatively wealthier aunt's home in Salisbury, and then on to better schooling (at the Convent, my high school), and finally an almost white collar job.  As an adult the author leads a strange social life in Salisbury before the second world war, providing an interesting window into a largely forgotten world.  During the war she marries a soldier on leave who she has known for just nine days, and on this bizarre decision this strange novel ends.  (After all, don't most women's stories end with marriage?  What else could there be?) 

I enjoyed this book, both because it is well written, and because it is rare.  If you are a tiny minority from a tiny country it is almost never you read a book by your demographic, but here we are: a book by a white Zimbabwean woman.  Admittedly, the bar is high, as this small group includes Nobel laureate Doris Lessing; but this is a worthy addition.

THEFT BY FINDING by David Sedaris

These are Sedaris' diaries from 1977 when he is in his early twenties, on through 2002.  What I mostly learnt from them is that you can waste a lot of years on hard drugs and still end up achieving something with your life.  I'm not really sure why I've been putting so much effort in.  I also learnt that he had a lot of free time.  It made me reflect on my own life.  He has time to ponder very (and I do mean very) minor events, and write them up to mild comic effect.  Having read quite a lot of his essays, especially in 2011, it's interesting to see the raw material of his life that he massaged into money.    Here's an example of what formed the basis of  the SANTALAND DIARIES.  It's from when he was working as a Christmas Elf at Macy's.  Here's some men leaving the grotto:
"And, hey, Santa," one of them said.  "Look after our boys in the Gulf, will you?"  He said it with such gooey poignancy, Santa and I laughed merrily after they'd left.


And here he is working as an entrance elf:
The job amounts to hustling up visitors, and I thought I did a pretty good job.  "Patronize Santa," I said.  "Behold his chubby majesty.  Santa was born and raised in a small home.  Hail him.  Santa's patience is beyond your comprehension.  Come test it."
I tend to love a diary, for the intimacy it gives you with someone else's life.  These dairies are not like that.  They hold you at arm's length.  But I didn't mind.  They were entertaining at a distance, which is quite how I like relationships in real life.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION by Gustave Flaubert

This is a book about a grand passion that goes nowhere. Frederic Moreau is a law student who falls madly in love with a another man's slightly older wife. He then pines after her for a couple of decades, and when she is finally available, decides she is now too old for him. He tries the law for a while, but then comes into a small fortune after which he rotates variously through arts, journalism, and politics, all with limited commitment. Meanwhile, major historical events are taking place in France: revolutions and so on. He is only tangentially involved.

So by the end of the 500 plus pages, you seem to have got precisely nowhere. At the end he is talking to his high school friend about a silly teenage prank, and the last lines of the book are them agreeing that that was "the best time we ever had". This an unexpectedly tough ending for a book that covers virtually the whole of someone's adult life, a life which was apparently - but I guess in the end not really - crammed with incident. It's pretty harsh.

Many contemporary critics hated the book, finding it meandering and meaningless. Others loved it, such as Theodore Banville who commented that it was'sad, indecisive and mysterious, like life itself, making do with endings all the more terrible in that they are not materially dramatic'. One of his friends wrote to Flaubert to say the book was popular among his generation:
Do you know . . . the great catchphrase of the day? It comes from your book. You say: "THE LAST PAGE OF Sentimental Education!"And you cover your face with your hands.
This tells me Flaubert's contemporaries were having a lot of issues we could relate to today. It's focus on a broadly meaningless life, while dressed up like a nineteenth century novel, makes it seem oddly modern.

This is not to say it is not boring. It is kind of boring. However the academic who wrote the introduction feels that that is the point:
Flaubert further complicates his scene by staging a confusing abundance of major characters. The inner circle, the fictional space just around the hero, is crowded with figures whose names we struggle to recall. . . . This is undoubtedly deliberate artistic practice, a trick of composition aptly called de-Balzac-ification. True to his exacting sense of the artistic vocation, insulated from the pressures of the market by his modest private income, Flaubert understood that the serious novel, the art novel, must detach itself from popular taste.

Next time I create something people don't like, I'm just going to say that I have detached myself from popular taste. That said, in among the meaninglessness and meander, there is lots of lovely writing. Let's end with this taster, of a life I am so grateful feminism has saved me from:
She was one of those Parisian spinsters who, every evening when they have given their lessons or tried to sell little sketches, or to dispose of poor manuscripts, return to their own homes with mud on their petticoats, make their own dinner, which they eat by themselves, and then, with their soles resting on a foot-warmer, by the light of a filthy lamp, dream of a love, a family, a hearth, wealth—all that they lack. So it was that, like many others, she had hailed in the Revolution the advent of vengeance, and she delivered herself up to a Socialistic propaganda of the most unbridled description.



Sunday, 9 July 2017

INSTEAD OF A LETTER by Diana Athill

This book is surprising in its honesty. I find it surprising Athill is willing to be this frank with strangers; and really surprising she is willing to be this honest with herself. She lays down a real challenge to me in how to think about myself, to myself. The book tells the story of a break-up Athill suffered in her early twenties; and in another way, it tells the story of her whole life - because for her this break-up was . . . let's just say, it was a bad one. And not a couple of weeks of ice-cream in your jammies kind of a bad one. More a twenty years of despair kind of a bad one.

While at University, Athill got engaged to a man she had known since she was fifteen. He went to Egypt for work, while she completed her last year at Oxford. He wrote to her regularly, and warmly, and then one day stopped writing to her. There was total silence for two years, until he wrote formally, asking to be released from their engagement, because he was going to marry someone else. I mean, that's pretty bad. But for her it was enough to send her into a two decade long tail-spin. Here she is, reflecting on what kept her going:
I believe, however, that I owe to Oxford much of the stability and resilience which enabled me, later, to live through twenty years of unhappiness without coming to dislike life. I already had the advantages of a happy childhood and a naturally equitable disposition, and three years of almost pure enjoyment added to those advantages confirmed in me a bias towards being well-disposed to life without which, lacking faith, lacking intellect, lacking energy, and eventually, lacking confidence in myself, I might have foundered.
And:
Lazy and self-indulgent, I was a lively girl only in my capacity as a female, and once I was wounded in that capacity I became, to face the truth, dull. (Since I believe that any recognition of truth is salutary, this should be a bracing moment, but it does not feel like that: it feels sad.)
See what I mean about a piercing, uncomfortable, honesty? That said, the despair is hard to understand. Perhaps in the 1940s, marriage was just that important to a woman's esteem. After that thought occurred to me, I thanked god on every page for the luck of being born now.

It's strange to read about someone who feels she has written off so much of her life. Despite what she says was a lack of interest in a career, she was for many years one of the most important book editors in London. But even this she does not claim as making her life worthwhile:
Eight years younger than myself, my cousin was an exceptionally pretty girl with a haunting personality, so that her life was considerably fuller than mine, and I slid prematurely into an attitude common among good-natured middle-aged women: that of taking so strong an interest in other people's lives that it largely fills the emptiness of one's own. I was comfortable in the routine of those years, and when on rare occasions I felt a stab of misery my reaction to it was not revolt against my circumstances but a deliberate attempt to become resigned to them. But to say that satisfying work was something that made me happy - that I could not have done. Something else, occupying only a fraction of each year and appearing to be marginal, made more difference to the colour of my days than did my work. My holidays.

In her forties, she slowly begins to recover. This is in part, as she says above, due to her holidays; in part, I think, because of her work; in part, because she wins a small writing prize, which makes her feel that perhaps after all she is not a failure. And failure she is not. This lady is a lovely, lucid writer. Enjoy these snippets:
After the late shift the tiny sequins of the traffic lights, reduced by masks during the blackout, changed from red to amber to green down the whole length of empty, silent Oxford Street. They looked as though they were signalling a whispered conversation, and they were the kind of thing with which I filled my days.
and
. . . the olive is the tree I would choose to keep if I could have only one: for the variety of shape, for the comforting roughness of its bark, for its minnow leaves, dark on top and silver underneath, which cast a shadow more delicately stippled than any other, and for its ancient usefulness, which makes it, like wheat, a symbolic thing.
INSTEAD OF A LETTER is full of these beautifully observed moments, which make you feel as if you have traveled deep inside her head. So much so that if one met her, it would be hard to act appropriately - i.e., like a stranger.

The book is remarkable to read today, but I can only imagine how remarkable it was when it first came out, when the genre of the 'memoir' barely existed. Let's end with a little snippet of her teenage fantasy - can you imagine how this must have knocked their 1940s socks off:
I lay sprawled on the parquet in my sage-green art-silk tunic and bloomer and my salmon-pink lisle stockings, thinking, 'If a stevedore' - why a stevedore? I am sure I had never met one - 'If a stevedore would come and rape me at this minute, I would let him'





The intimacy between people working together is an agreeable thing and very real, in spite of the disconcerting way in which it vanishes as soon as the same people meet each other in different circumstances.

OUR MAN IN HAVANA by Graham Greene

This is a very un-Graham Greene Graham Greene, which is odd, as it is a pretty famous Graham Greene. It's got a lot of what you expect: an abortive romance; a middle aged man; obssessive Catholic guilt; and somehow he has tried to mash these elements into a comedy.

Mr Wormold is a vacuum cleaner salesman in Cuba who is recruited as a spy by the British government and takes the job for the money. He falsifies reports to the centre, and when this is discovered, it is covered up by the authorities who do not want to be themselves embarrassed. This is I think supposed to be the hilarious and unlikely climax of a rollicking plot. Perhaps in the 1950s, when this was written, it could be read as such. Today it doesn't seem funny, or even improbable. In the era of Trump it reads like: this is what would probably happen. And also: what is there to laugh in about this? Or course spies are of limited competence. Of course the cnetre has its own political agenda. This is the tragic truth of the world.

In summary, if you're interested in Graham Greene, start with the classics, on his perennial topics of hearbreak and despair; THE END OF THE AFFAIR or THE HEART OF THE MATTER; let's avoid OUR MAN IN HAVANA

Sunday, 2 July 2017

DESPERATE CHARACTERS by Paula Fox

One sizable subset of books I have read this year is in the category ‘books Jonathan Franzen recommends’, (e.g., the wonderful THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN). DESPERATE CHARACTERS is one of these, an out-of-print rarity that makes you glad Amazon is taking over the world, so you can find it. Here’s Franzen on Fox:
Because the book is not long, and because I’ve now read it half a dozen times, I'm within sight of the point at which every sentence will be highlighted as vital and central. This extraordinary richness is, of course, a testament to Paula Fox’s genius. There’s hardly an extraneous or arbitrary word to be found in the book. Rigor and thematic density of such magnitude don’t happen by accident, and yet it’s almost impossible for a writer to achieve them while relaxing enough to allow the characters to come alive, and yet here the novel is, soaring above every other work of American realist fiction since the Second World War.

It’s 156 pages of one weekend in one woman’s life. The main action is her getting bitten by a cat. Yet somehow, I agree with Franzen: it’s about so much more, I can’t quite describe it. It’s about middle class guilt; about making a success of marriage; about urban blight; about failure; also, tangentially, about rabies. I can’t pretend Fox doesn’t crush it. Here’s a flavour -

On an old friend:
And she liked his somewhat battered face, the close fitting English suits he bought from a London salesman who stopped at a mid-town hotel each year to take orders, the Italian shoes he said were part of his seducer’s costume. He wasn’t a seducer. He was remote. He was like a man preceded into a room by acrobats.
. Or this, where the main character is thinking about a man she had an affair with:
She put herself to sleep again, nursing memories of Francis Early, like an old crone with a bit of rag for a baby
. Or here, the family of her caretaker:
Sitting around the kitchen table like collapsed sacks of grain were Mrs Hayes and the three Hayes children

And yet somehow I couldn’t quite enjoy it. Or rather I enjoyed it till page 155 of 156, after which I was like: what? It doesn’t end so much as stop. Someone throws an ink bottle at a wall, and that’s it. It may be that I am intellectually limited and irretrievably ensnared in the Victorians, but I just can’t bear it. I appreciate that this is what real life is like, that nothing resolves, and that this is the very cutting edge of literature, but I just can’t get behind it. I like my novels to at least gently indicate in the direction of meaning. Paula Fox is too tough for that. So I admire it, but somehow I can't quite like it. And yet I admire it hugely: so much so that the fact that it is out-of-print strikes me as indicative of end-of-days, almost as much as the election of President Trump

Sunday, 25 June 2017

THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL by Ira Levin

I wouldn’t say I am a big thriller reader and yet somehow I am on my way to having read almost all of Levin’s novels. A lot of them have been made into movies, I suspect because they are fantastic as one line pitches: Suburban husbands replace wives with robots; women gives birth to devil; etc. I’ve found he has you turning pages like it’s your job to get the novel read. I can’t say the same for THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL.

The premise is fun in theory SPOILER ALERT with Dr Mengele aiming to produce an army of Hilter clones. See how awesome that is as a one line pitch? And yet somehow it doesn’t quite come off. I thought for a while it was because it was rather dated. And while this is a problem, I’m starting to think it is instead because what we really read thrillers for is not the fright factor, but the fun factor – and this novel is just not very fun. I think this is not Levin’s fault. It’s basically unavoidable, because given the subject matter, the Holocaust is ever present – and that topic is so terrible, and so dark, and so sad, that it is almost impossible to read a book in which it features, and find it fun. In fact, after a while, even though I enjoy an army of thirteen year old Hitlers as much as anyone, I started to find the whole thing in rather bad taste. Somehow that’s just not as much of a problem with satanic babies and robot wives.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

CAUGHT IN THE REVOLUTION by Helen Rappaport

I rarely read non-fiction, but this was the 'one free' of a 'buy one get one free' deal, so here we are.

I am interested generally in revolutions, and this turned out to be an interesting book. Released to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution, it tells the story of the year 1917 in Petrograd by means of the diaries and letters of foreign visitors, who were, as the title dramatically tells us "caught in the revolution." There's an array of types: diplomats, servants, Emily Pankhurst; hundreds of British governesses, left destitute when their wealthy employers flee, etc. Quite a fair number of visitors however were not "caught in the revolution" but in fact trying to catch it; the town was awash with foreign journalists. As one hilariously put it: "I smell trouble . . . . and thank god I am here to get the photographs of it."

Interestingly, quite a few of these journalists were women, many of whom sound quite frighteningly badass. One woman reporting was Louise Bryant, a fervent communist who began with divorce and ended with alcoholism via typhus, proving you don't need to have the vote to have a fantastic time.

I learnt from this book that the revolution had many causes, but that the most pressing one was hunger. Queues for food were days long, in temperatures well below freezing. What surprised me was what caused the hunger:
By February the daily consignment of flour to Petrograd had dropped to just twenty-one wagonloads, instead of the normal 120 needed. . . . Official mismanagement, corruption and wastage of supplies were prodigious, made worse by a crippled rail network that was unable to transport food efficiently from the provinces – where it was still plentiful – to the cities that most needed it. People were incensed to discover that, due to the hikes in the price of oats and hay, much of the black bread – the staple diet of the poor – was being fed to the capital's 80,000 horses to keep them alive: 'every horse was eating up the black bread allowance of ten men'. . . . Word spread like wildfire about food going to waste, of 'millions of pounds of cheap Siberian beef' being left to rot in railway sidings. Few of the munition-workers, whose wives or children spent more than half their time in the queue before a bread-shop, had not heard of the 'fish graveyards' of Astrakhan, where thousands of tons of the spoiled harvest of the Caspian were buried; and all classes had heard of the 'saccharine rivers' which travellers had seen flowing from leaky sugar warehouses in the great beet-growing districts of South Russia and Podolia.
I guess I know that famines have generally historically been due to lack of political will to resolve them, rather than a lack of food. Even today, globally we create more food than we need, while people starve in Yemen, but I was amazed to learn that even while the Russian government knew they teetered on the brink they couldn't get their act together to just get the railroads moving.

It is interesting to read what it was like for the Russians suddenly set free of the Tsar. So little experience did they have of freedom of expression or freedom of association that they had to borrow an English word to describe what they are were now doing: Meetinki. It is wild to imagine what it would be like to finally be free to have an opinion.
Groups of twenty or thirty would spontaneously gather, and then 'one of the company mounts a stone, or a bench, or a heap of snow and talks his head off, gesticulating wildly. The audience gazes fixedly at the orator and listens in a kind of rapt absorption. As soon as he stops another takes his place and immediately gets the same fervent silence and concentrated attention
As one American diplomat telegraphed President Wilson: "We have here an infant class in the art of being free containing one hundred and seventy million people, and they need to be supplied with kindergarten material."

Some of what went on was not very kindergarten. There was quite a lot of violence, especially against the Tsarist police, who very much sound like they deserved what was coming to them (i.e., being beaten to death). Weapons were everywhere, as one journalist noted: "Even street urchins seemed to have picked up revolvers, and were blazing away at stray pigeons." The author, Helen Rappoport, makes free use of some very questionable adjectives, calling violence 'senseless,' and damaged imperial decor 'sad' which I don't think the starving would agree it was. That said, I enjoyed it overall and am glad I took a break to read some non-fiction, not least because I shall now sound crushingly well-informed about the Russian revolution when the topic comes up. As obviously I now hope it will. Let me think of how to angle dinner party chit-chat in that direction.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

POUR ME by AA Gill

There are very few journalists who can write a good book, and AA Gill is not one of them.

It starts well, with the account of the alcoholism of his 20s. Memoirs of addiction are difficult, being all basically the same story, but he gives his an interesting spin. Here he is on his recovery through William Glasser therapy methods:
Bill Glasser . . . believed that there were five things that people needed in order to function properly, and the first and the greatest of these was love. It wasn’t an original thought. But they don’t tell us this, because frankly no one wants to be told that the answer to everything is love. No one wants the payoff of his tragedy to be the chorus of a pop song.

And there are some nice turns of phrase - here is on his father: "My dad died of Alzheimer's. I watched him retreat like Napoleon as the frozen winter of the illness buried his memories. He retreated further and further, fighting dogged but ultimately unmemorable rear-guard actions over the remembrances of his life . . . "

But once he is recovered, and himself again, I find I don't really like that self very much. For a start, he seems to be a kind of pretentious guy. Try this little piece of showing off: "Cookery books are the unconsidered diaries of family life, the everyday history of breakfast, the Veda of lunch, the Decalogue of dinner." And there's a lot of this kind of thing: " . . . the cruet set brought back from honeymoon that sat on a dresser for a lifetime, too silly to use, to fond to throw away, still with the grains of salt that had rested there, the symbol of a friendship and hospitality for a lifetime."

Worse than this, is its extraordinary insularity. There is a tiny section of North London - a hard core of few hundred people who regard themselves as a sort of intelligentsia - who, like Welsh miners, have heroically resisted globalisation, and a view of their own un-importance in the big world. Antonia Fraser's MUST YOU GO - read in the dark days before this blog was begun - is the summit of this world view, but this one is pretty bad too. There's also some extraordinarily awkward name-dropping Try this: "Snowdon: old people and fancy bantams. You could never accuse him of snobbery: he treated them both exactly the same. I'm very fond of Tony, but he could be a bugger just for the devilment of it." It's that 'Tony' that really grates. And don't even get me started on his mention of snobbery: Gill has a lot to say on this, but I think you have to have been born in England to know what he's on about - it drips with unacknowledged class anxiety, which, if you weren't brought up to it, is one part hard to understand and two parts annoying.

I feel bad to pan this book, as I understand AA Gill has recently passed away. I don't like to speak ill of the dead; but I suppose it's all right to speak ill of the dead's book.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

THE GRAND SOPHY by Georgette Heyer

To read Georgette Heyer is to learn to appreciate Jane Austen. Some readers - usually male - argue that Austen cannot be considered a serious writer - like her heavily bearded nineteenth century peers -because she wrote what they dismissively describe as 'love stories'.

Quite what is wrong would be wrong with that, I'm not sure, as these people never object to stories on other emotions. However it's not accurate. Austen's books are not so much about romance as they are about learning to live with yourself in the world; making bad choices; and facing the consequences. Heyer's, on the other hand, while apparently similar - a love story, a Regency setting - are quite plainly and simply about nothing very much. They're sheer joyous escapism. You can read them with happy confidence that all will turn out well, for those who deserve it to. As per Oscar Wilde:
The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.

I read a good amount of Georgette Heyer as a teenager, but haven't opened her in a couple of decades. I was driven to it recently by an urgent need for escape - for the good to end happily - and THE GRAND SOPHY provided a delightful weekend's reading. I was a little shame faced over reading such trash, until I looked Heyer's life up. I was impressed to learn that she started her career back when women were barely allowed to be employed, in the 1920s, and her writing supported her flakey husband, two flakey brothers, and flakey son for the rest of her life. I was even more impressed to learn that she single-handedly invented the genre of historical romance.

I also reflected that she's only trashy in so far as someone like Kipling - her near contemporary - was trashy: lots of plot, lots of moral, not much challenge; and yet Kipling is in the cannon. One hates to have to bring up gender all the time - so I won't. But draw your own conclusions.

Monday, 1 May 2017

THE GIRL WITH THE LOWER BACK TATTOO by Amy Schumer

I was midway through a serious novel on POWs on the Burmese railroad when I realised I was just in too fragile a state for quality fiction about crimes against humanity. I therefore took emergency action on Amazon, and this yielded THE GIRL WITH THE LOWER BACK TATTOO.

I recently took similarly urgent action in an airport before a transatlantic flight with two other books by female American comics: Tina Fey's BOSSYPANTS (great) and Amy Poehler's YES PLEASE (horrible). I always used to hesitate to remunerate what I know to be cynical publishers trying to make money of TV tie-ins, but I guess I'm just getting less scrupulous as I get older. By the time I'm fifty I'll be reading golfer's autobiographies.

Schumer's book is unexpectedly wonderful. It's very funny, and very clever, and kind of dirty, as you'd expect. But it's also sort of inspirational. Let's start with the funny and clever. Here she is on Hollywood:
I'm sure no one is too shocked to hear that it's an industry of people who judge most women almost solely on their appearance, and where every day women feel themselves barreling toward death and decay while smaller, hotter actresses like Selena keep appearing like Russian nesting dolls.
Or on being caught by the paparazzi:
One of the first times I was papped they caught me stand-up paddle boarding in Hawaii. I didn't even recognise myself. I saw the shots and thought, 'Oh cool, Alfred Hitchcock is alive and likes water sports.' But nope. It was me.

And on to the inspirational. It's hard to capture exactly what I mean by this. It's largely I think about the degree of honesty with which Schumer talks about her life, and particularly her family. People so rarely tell you how they really feel that it's always touching when they do. Being a comedian who talks about her own life means that Amy has spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to share yourself. She tells a story about a time she was with a group of friends in the early years of high school, and had an experience which earned her the nickname 'silver dollars'.
While we were hanging on the playground, the ten guys somehow convinced the six girls to lift up their shirts and show them their boobs. They’d presented the very good argument of “Why not?” We had no counterargument for that, so we lined up and, on the count of three, lifted our shirts. I wrapped my fourteen-year-old fingers around the bottom of my Gap tee and yanked it over my pimpled, plump face with abandon. . . . I then looked down the line and realized that all the other girls had just shown their bras. In a perfect metaphor for my life, I had revealed too much. I’d pulled up my entire bra too. I was the only skins player on the team. . .This was my very first experience of the stripped-down, cold, unprotected space where vulnerability meets either confidence or shame. It was my choice, and I had to learn (I’m still learning) how to choose to be proud of who I am rather than ashamed. Lucky for me, I’m a woman, so I’ve had the opportunity to practice this lesson over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

She is particularly interesting in her acceptance of - and openess about - her own mistakes. That is in fact what the title is about - the terrible cheesy lower back tattoo she got when she was eighteen.
So now, . . . , I'm thirty five, and any time I'm in a bathing suit people immediately know in their hearts that I'm trash. Any time I take my clothes off for the first time in front of a man and he sees it, he also knows in his heart that I'm trash and that I make poor, poor decisions. And now that the paparazzi think it’s interesting to take photos of me doing absolutely nothing noteworthy on a beach somewhere, the whole world has been treated to photos of my lower back tattoo hovering crookedly over my bikini bottoms. But I promise you from the bottom of my heart I don’t care. I wear my mistakes like badges of honor, and I celebrate them. They make me human. Now that all of my work, my relationships, my tweets, my body parts, and my sandwiches are publicly analyzed, I’m proud that I labeled myself a flawed, normal human before anyone else did. I beat all the critics and Internet trolls to the punch. I’ve been called everything in the book, but I already branded myself a tramp, so the haters are going to have to come up with something fresh.

Somehow, though the above may sound a little cliche taken out of context, I actually believe her - believe she accepts her mistakes. And I find the idea that someone could actually really do that sort of mindboggling and also very encouraging.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

JAMAICA INN by Daphne du Maurier

One thing that’s just fantastically fun is to have a book to read on vacation that’s written in that location. A weekend in Cornwall demands du Maurier almost as much as it does cream teas.

It’s a gothic thriller with a high cheese factor: dark moors, dark nights, dark men. But it’s still a fun and engaging read. I kept failing to look at the view because I was busy seeing where the book would go. Also, I appreciate Daphne fighting the good fight with the patriarchy: the main character is a woman – unusual for a book of the thirties – and a woman who is very much in charge of her own decisions and her own destiny. There’s a love story woven in here somewhere, in the middle of shipwrecks and albino vicars, and this – which could have been the cheesiest part of the story – is in fact the most complicated. He’s difficult, and she’s difficult too, and SPOILER while they get together at the end, it’s already a very prosaic negotiation: an unexpected burst of reality in the midst of murder and mayhem.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

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 illiterate get a look in. It’s a strange story, full of unreliable narrators, including the author himself, who appears as a shepherd in the story.

It’s a thriller whose thrill is based on the Calvinist theory of predestination. Yes, you read that right. Apparently predestination was a hot topic in the eighteenth century. It’s the idea that as the saved are a chosen people, and as God has planned your life in advance, if you are one of the chosen you are always chosen, no matter what you do: you can’t sin yourself out of your pre-determined salvation, even by sinning a lot. This makes a sort of sense, if you think about it a lot, and shows the dangers of thinking a lot on anything. Logic has a lot of dead ends.

Predestination was I guess a kind of a cultural madness, and Hogg attempts to show this by taking it to its furthest extreme. A young man who believes himself saved is approached by another young man (‘Gil Martin’) and encouraged to think that it is his duty to smite the unbelievers. He’s hesitant, but is eventually convinced that even if he is in the wrong, he is saved in any case, so any error cannot keep him from heaven. He starts by smiting a local parson with whom he disagrees on some microscopic points of doctrine, and it goes downhill from there. It’s obvious to the reader from the beginning that Gil Martin is probably Satan, and over time it becomes horribly obvious to the young man also, who is driven to ever more desperate measures.

It made me think about the young men who join Daesh. It must take real courage to do what you think is right, and more courage to realise you were wrong, and an even more terrible courage to do anything about it.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

BEL CANTO by Ann Pratchett

This sounded like it was going to be good: 50 wealthy people taken hostage and held by terrorists for four months in a ballroom. But I found it unfortunately rather bad: a great premise, but a lame and unlikely story.

First thing that was unlikely: there is an opera singer among the hostages, who decides she needs to practice, and so sings for two hours a day - and the people ACTUALLY LIKE IT. This strains credulity. I can’t imagine anything worse than being imprisoned and then made to listen to opera. I think this is supposed to be some kind of reflection on the universal redemptive power of great art but I guess what I learnt is that I don’t believe in that power.

Second thing unlikely: this opera singer and some man fall in love, despite not speaking the same language. I think this is supposed to be some kind of reflection on love existing on a plane beyond language. I guess I also don’t believe in that.

Third thing unlikely: one of the hostages and one of the terrorists fall in love. This, despite a truly vast gap in class and experience in violence. I guess I do believe in Stockholm Syndrome, but I don’t think that’s what Pratchett was going for.

In short, I guess this book was educational. I learnt I don’t believe either art or love conquer all.

Monday, 17 April 2017

BOSWELL’S LONDON JOURNAL 1762-1763 by James Boswell, edited by Frederick A Pottle

I don’t suppose many people read Boswell, and those who do probably don’t begin with his lesser works. But there you go: such are the perils and pleasures of not letting the Amazon algorithm suggest what you read, but rather the mysterious inner workings of a charity shop at Clapham Junction.

The algorithm rationally assigns you what you would probably enjoy (i.e., the big classic: Boswell’s Life of Johnson). The British Heart Foundation shop erratically suggests the reading preferences of whoever has died that week. This I really quite enjoy, as for some reason this particular charity shop has really rather highbrow donors. It’s surprising. I suspect it is because readers of similar tastes go there, and so donate there, and so go there. It’s me and a bunch of OAPs, would be my guess. So that’s the story of why I am reading a relatively obscure 18th century diary in an even more obscure 1950 edition the cover of which I struggled to find on Google images for your thumbnail enjoyment.

I love a good diary. There is something extraordinarily reassuring in seeing the day-to-day of someone else’s life, even if that someone has been dead for 200 years. Here’s a flavor, from the footnotes:
About this time he (Boswell) began also to write a series of memoranda, one octavo page every day, apparently jotted down the last thing before he went to bed or the first thing in the morning before he put on his clothes. In them he tells himself, always in the second person, what to eat, what to wear, what supplies to get in, what books to read; makes schedules for calls; gives directions for pleasures; orders himself to keep his journal posted; implores himself to try to attain to greater gravity.

It’s touching to see how other people suffer days when they are down, for no reason; that other people have to make resolutions; have to find self-control, and exercise that boring daily discipline of happiness. It’s particularly touching to read the diary of someone in their early twenties, as I don’t think that’s something often preserved (unless they are a suicide). I’m struck by how much time Boswell spends resolving on ‘manner’ – on being this or that type of person. I recall that from my twenties, and it’s interesting to see I don’t seem to do that anymore. Perhaps I am actually an adult.

There’s also a charming and sometimes horrifying flavor of 18th century London. Boswell is always to be found drinking coffee, going to the theatre, eating in chop houses, etc. Here we are with a prostitute (he’s always having sex with these poor women in the street):
In the Strand I picked up a little profligate wretch and gave her sixpence. She allowed me entrance. But the miscreant refused me performance. I was much stronger than her, and volens nolens pushed her up against the wall. She however gave a sudden spring from me; and screaming out, a parcel of more whores and soldiers came to her relief.
I have a lot of questions that I don’t really want answered about all of that. Near the end of his diary Boswell finally meets Johnson, and we see here his first notes that would become the famous Life. It’s enormously quotable, and makes me feel I need to work on polishing my conversational knife a little further:
Sir, I was once a greater arguer for the advantages of poverty, but I was at the same time very discontented. Sir, the great deal of arguing which we hear to represent poverty as no evil shows it to be evidently a great one. You never knew people laboring to convince you that you might live very happily upon a plentiful fortune.
And:
Mr Johnson said today that a woman’s preaching was like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It was not done well, but you were surprised to find it done at all.
Also charming are the editor’s almost insanely detailed, and sweetly dated, footnotes, which clearly mark how much this academic loves this man. Example - Boswell is busy with another prostitute, and the editor comments: “ ‘roger’ of course has a different meaning today, in this age of radio-telephony”

I love that line of Alan Bennett’s about reading being "as if a hand has come out and taken yours” from across time. This book made me feel like that, in the best possible way.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

BROOKLYN by Colm Toibin

This is a wonderful novel, deeply engaging, remarkably concise; creating a world and characters you care about in a brief 250 pages. It is at the same time entirely forgettable. It's a strange mixture. I felt like I just swallowed it whole and now it's over and I have some kind of eater's remorse.

BROOKLYN tells the story of a young Irish woman who moves to America, leaving behind her widowed mother and sister, as she is unable to find work at home. She is deeply unhappy at first, but finally finds love with an Italian. It's an interesting window into a truly immigrant New York, where she has to be trained in how to eat spaghetti before she goes to meet his parents. Then SPOILER ALERT her sister dies, and her boyfriend asks that she marries him before she goes home to see her mother, as he is scared she will never return. She does so, secretly, thinking it a little silly, as she fully intends to come back. Once in Ireland, she finds out - as do many who return home - that home is strangely powerful. Almost immediately America disappears like a dream, in the scary way that not-here can do.

She meets someone new, and it turns out it was smart of her Italian to get the marriage done before she left. It comes out, the world being a small place even before the internet, and she heads back to America, wiser now, confident that home too can disappear, given time.