Monday, 12 December 2011

Can you forgive her? by Anthony Trollope

Trollope is a bit unfashionable these days, I fear. People like John Major saying 'I like to go to bed with a Trollope' and acting as if it is so...droll.

But he is a very readable writer and that is what I most liked about this book. Like other Victorian writers, you can see how the discipline of the regular instalment keeps the pace up nicely. Dickens wrote many of his novels as serials in various periodicals and this novel, the first of Trollope's Palliser novels, or the 'political novels' as they are called by the afficionados, benefits from the need for suspensive breaks and regular reminders of what is going on. The cadences are rhythmic and engrossing, after a few chapters.

The characters are not all convincing and this is very much a novel about the upper middle classes. But it rattles along and Trollope is all plot and action; he doesn't dwell on long descriptions or long digressions.

This is the first of a series of about 6 novels and I will certainly get hold of 'Phineas Finn', which comes next. It may sound odd, to say of a Victorian novelist, but Trollope is great recreational reading.

I won't spoil the plot for you by talking about it in detail but one of the most fascinating things about it is the way in which social  mores are so suffocating and yet so formative. The sense of human passions and emotions being diverted by inviolable social custom, like a river meandering in response to rocks and other obstacles, underpins the whole book.

I strongly recommend it, especially of you are planning a long journey. It is, in the best sense of the word, diverting.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

This I found to be a slightly mannered novel, in that all the dialogue is crafted to carry meaning rather than sound authentic. Nothing wrong with that but it weighs heavily on the comedy.

The book is essentially about being, and not being, Jewish. It is also about the rather rarified world of the London intelligentsia and, as far as one can tell, the world to a large extent inhabited by the author. It has some funny and bathetic moments but the artfulness of the dialogue makes it hard to empathise with the characters. The emotion feels created rather than felt.

But it moves along nicely and is an enjoyable read.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

The Ambassadors by Henry James

I was listening to the radio and writers were being interviewed about books that had been tough to read but which in the end proved worth the trouble. Henry James was mentioned more than any other writer. I can half see why they said that, after reading this; but only half. Unfortunately for me, I think the half that is missing is the half when you say 'ah, so it was worth it'.

I had only read the Turn of the Screw before this, which I enjoyed. But that is only a novella or, perhaps, as short story.

His style is so vague and elliptical, in this book, that it is often hard to figure out what, if anything, is going on. He uses ambiguous phrases like 'make out' and 'bring on' in the course of dialogue which is often opaque in its meaning. This is clearly deliberate, as we share in the protagonist's journey of understanding. He has been sent by a rather buttoned-up American family to bring the son, perceived to be errant, back from Paris. He realises during his mission that things are not so simple, of course. This creates a bit of dramatic tension, hard though that is to follow behind the linguistic mists of James's style. It also supports one of the novel's central themes, the nature of civilisation and the differences between cultures.

Much is inferred rather than stated, not least in relation to sex. I spent a lot of the book trying to understand whether we were dealing with friendships or love affairs. Perhaps that uncertainty reflects real life and is to be appreciated on that basis. But it can be bewildering when spread out over a whole novel.

A practical point - I was reading the Penguin Classics text and it contained a number of annoying typographical errors.

I won't be rushing to read another novel by Henry James, to be honest. The period he wrote in fascinates me, however, and I fancy Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence. But for this reader, James is a bit too much like hard work, for now at any rate.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

There can have been few better times in the last 100 years or so to read this book. It was written in the 1960s by the American historian Barbara Tuchman and it deals with August 1914 and the outbreak of the First World War.

I have read several books on this period, trying hard to understand the reasons for what we think of today as a war of unexampled pointlessness yet destructiveness. This is the best I have read. She portrays brilliantly the unthinking nationalism and direly stupid autocracy of Europe's governing elites. British readers, brought up like me on the myth of unstinting British heroism in both world wars, will find the cool analysis of British intransigence and disorganisation in the weeks preceding the outbreak of war and, especially, the early and crucial weeks of the campaign, unsettling. And any American reader who thinks the French deserve the nickname of cheese eating surrender monkeys (ironically created though it was) can be disabused by her account of amazing French heroism.

It is shocking still to read of how atrocity and gross intimidation were written into the German approach to war; these were formal policy,  not isolated incidents. So fearful were they of French and Belgian snipers that they adopted a disciplined approach to horror, shooting whole villages, including children, with bureaucratic dispatch, as reprisals.

Tuchman describes the events through personalities and the telling anecdote. When Europe is going through economic convulsion, it is timely to remind ourselves just how corrosive nationalism has been in Europe in the relatively recent past. We still see vestiges of it in the Balkans and elsewhere. World War I was, according to this distinguished and readable account, ultimately caused by a collective derangement over 'national interests'. Where have I heard that phrase invoked in the councils of Europe recently?

Saturday, 24 September 2011

A visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

This is the first book by Jennifer Egan that I have read. I can't remember now why I bought it - I think I had read a good review somewhere.

I thought it was only OK. It lacks universal appeal; it might wring some wry smiles from young professionals but I didn't find the characters engrossing at a human level. It is basically about how time changes people: "time is a goon".

It is cleverly written - by no means a bad book. It just didn't grab me.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

I decided to reread this after reading Tim Butcher's book. He reminded me just how powerful it is, the more so for its brevity. It is a novella, really, of only 120 pages.

The book is now quoted regularly. Apparently even Mobutu, with astonishing self regard and perhaps even ironic self awareness, used perhaps the most famous line from the book: "The horror! The horror!", when visiting the scene of a horrendous massacre during his many years of crazed and despotic rule.

I remember the quote used by T S Eliot in The Hollow Men: "Mistah Kurtz - he dead." I did not know the book then, so it seemed exotic and mysterious. But the shortness of the book gives the text something of the portentousness of writ. Each word means something in a long and inexorable journey to....what?

The introduction by Paul O'Prey to the edition I read, in Penguin, makes the point that the whole book is premised on dancing around the mystery at the heart of human motivations and perversions. It does not offer an answer; it just describes the question. But what a beautifully crafted question!

I also think it is a very strong rejection of colonialism. It was published in 1902, when the horrors of Belgian colonial rule in the Congo were only recently revealed and still subject to suppression by the Belgian Government. You can be in no doubt about Conrad's utter disgust with the whole venture.

But he brings in other metaphysical mysteries, too. The motley-clad figure who meets him at the Upper Station, in awe of Kurtz but still a remarkable survivor, seems to represent the sprites and fleeting acquaintances we meet in life, who engender a sense of unease but also a frisson of excitement. He is a glimpse of an unknown world, unsettling and morally corrupt.

It is hard to read the book today without seeing connections to 'Apocalypse Now', the Francis Ford Coppola film set in the Vietnam war and loosely based on 'Heart of Darkness'. The character just mentioned, for example, was played by Dennis Hopper. The impact of film on how books are understood and appreciated is immense.

But this is a true classic. I have enjoyed Conrad for many years. His maritime interests and his feel for the position of the stranger in foreign lands are attractive, of course. But he carries authority; you believe what he says. Which makes this book all the more creepy.

Friday, 9 September 2011

At Home: a Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

I like Bill Bryson. I read A Short History of Everything and enjoyed it and this book is similar in structure and style. I would love to see his desk, or wherever it is he works. He collects loads of information, finds intriguing and amusing anecdotes and connections within this pile of facts, then puts it into a framework of chapters and narrative.

He has an exceptionally easy going style and his tone is never patronising. It feels like some well-informed, humble, well-intentioned and enthusiastic companion is walking beside you as all these facts and the connections between them unfold before you.

The book is full of fascinating facts. Did you know that the human excrement in rooms and corridors at the Palace of Versailles was cleaned up once a week, and only after complaints became too frequent? Did you know that Beau Brummel did not actually dress in bright colours but in only a few subdued tones; and that it was the cut of his clothes and the sheer quality that gained him his reputation? Or that beds used to be made of a frame with rope latticing to provide the 'mattress', which was only comfortable when stretched taut, hence the saying 'sleep tight'?

Maybe you did know all these things but I didn't and I thoroughly enjoyed learning them in such an entertaining and discursive manner.

Nice one, Bill.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

The editorial notes on this Penguin edition emphasise the prophetic nature of this memoir, written in the early 1960s when the writer was successful, well known and seeking by a journey across America some refreshment of his faculties. He does make some telling observations about consumerism and the impact of mass communications that are as valid today as they were then. Which maybe tells us something, as the world has not gone quite to hell in a hand cart as he, in his gentle and humane way, sort of predicts.

His companion is the Charley of the title, a giant French poodle and there is much to enjoy here for anyone who has a dog or even a passing interest in them. Charley acts, as Steinbeck says, as a diplomat, breaking the ice with the people he encounters and, when we reach the only dark section of the book in the racially charged melting pot of the South, acting as a cypher for the hatred that seems to seep everywhere. The dog is shaggy and sits on the front seat. Steinbeck recounts how many times he was told by white people 'I thought you had a nigger in there.' It is a very sharp way of putting the sad, sad situation that prevailed at the time in the context of the book overall.

The book is full of nice vignettes and Steinbeck's style is intellectual but at the same time easy and accessible. He is relaxed about the autobiographical nature of some of what he writes, shifting easily from straightforward accounts of his domestic and family arrangements to ruminations on the Great Divide (the line of mountain ridges that divide the Atlantic east of America from the Pacific west) and the depopulation of the American west.

A nice, thought-provoking but enjoyably down home sort of book.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Blood River by Tim Butcher

This account of the author's journey in the early 2000s up the Congo River is educative but fast-paced and genuinely gripping.

I had read King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochshild and In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz by Michela Wrong so I had some familiarity with the terrible, terrible history and current state of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo but was for a few years called Zaire by the murderous nutcase then in charge, Mobutu Sese Seko.

Tim Butcher is a journalist and his style reflects that. It is workmanlike rather than artistic or poetic but this is really a documentary account of his journey with brief but well-timed and instructive digressions on history and culture. The framework of the book is based on the notion that he is following the journey made by Henry Morton Stanley in the 1870s, when he became the first white man to travel overland from east to west Africa. following the Congo from Lake Tanganyika to its outlet to the Atlantic Ocean.

The most fascinating thing about the book is its contemporariness. The author made this journey in 2004 and his description of how life is, in today's Congo, is profoundly, heart-rendingly bleak. He describes sharply how times have changed from the Belgian colonial era in a material sense, finding regularly bits of old infrastructure that used to be part of a comfortable western European civilisation transported to the heart of Africa. Of course, it was only comfortable for white people and the crimes against humanity of the Belgians are well documented in Hochshild's book.

But Butcher's central conclusion, depressing though it is, is that Congo is actually one of the very few places in the world that is going backwards, not forwards. People are becoming poorer and more disconnected from the rest of humanity while a criminal elite extract wealth from one of the most fertile and richly-endowed countries in the world.

In the face of such overwhelmingly negative evidence, the author does his best to sound positive. But I was left with the feeling that he concluded his journey with a sense of despair. We should be grateful to him for carrying out this demanding and horrible journey ('ordeal travel', he calls it) and reporting it so well and so clearly. But God knows what the solution to Congo's troubles is or can be. The final word is best left with Conrad's Mr Kurtz: "The horror! The horror!".

Friday, 19 August 2011

The Story of Philosophy by Bryan Magee

This is actually the second time I have read this book. For many years, I have hankered after an understanding of philosophy but have perhaps too much relied on books like this - introductions, summaries, syntheses. I have read Sophie's World and Russell's A History of Western Philosophy, as well as other of Magee's books.

This is good as it has lots of pictures. And he writes beautiful summaries and short descriptions of how philosophy has evolved. But it is curiously difficult to remember the actual arguments and beliefs he mentions. I suppose it must follow that time spent reading, say, Kant will give you a firmer grasp of his beliefs than a nicely written summary. But reading Kant is a bit of an undertaking. After reading this, I thought about reading Nietszche but after browsing a few volumes I realised it would be hard to fit in to a busy life where reading is primarily for pleasure.

So maybe I am condemned to reading digests and summaries of philosophy as a means of self improvement. Hey ho.

Fludd by Hilary Mantel

A nicely crafted little novel. It tells the story of a mysterious priest who comes to stay in a remote Yorkshire village at a time when doubt besets the Catholic congregation and their own, local, priest.

I went to a Catholic school and I suspect some background knowledge of the weirdness and absurdity of the Catholic faith enhances the reader's enjoyment. It is a funny book, with an amusing twist at the end. The narrative is self contained (deliberately, I am sure) and, in that sense, timeless. It does not draw on external events, either of a historical or contextual kind.

But it is short and easy to read, with a nice style. I enjoyed it more than A Place of Greater Safety, which was a bit long-winded for my taste.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Wellington - a personal history by Christopher Hibbert

I have long retained an interest in the Napoleonic period. Not sure why -  the names are somehow evocative and perhaps it has something to do with the fact that it is the only period of history I remember at all from my schooldays.

Wellington is also a figure who has fascinated me. I visited Apsley House a few years' ago, for work of all things, and remember it well. So I decided to read a biography and a quick search on Amazon came up with this one, which I then bought on Abebooks. (I have largely stopped buying new books - Abebooks is a great service. It is the second hand version of Amazon and is part of the same company.)

This subtitled 'a personal history' and it does indeed focus on the great man's private life. But the big historical events are covered, albeit a bit obliquely, as background to the personal stuff. But it is very nicely written and never flags. I enjoyed it a lot and feel I know a lot more about Lord W than I did before, without any sense of having had to work at it.

Mr Hibbert is a bit of a career biographer, so he knows how to keep a story moving while at the same time sticking to the facts. In fact, that is a point worth mentioning - he does not impart his own judgements but lets the material speak for itself. I liked that.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Waiting for the Barbarians by J M Coetzee (Holiday Reading part 3)

I have enjoyed Coetzee's books before - Disgrace, in particular. His spare and taut language seems a trademark and it is very prominent in this book.

It is an allegory, set in a timeless and placeless frontier of an empire. There are guns but no reliable means of communication; travel is on horseback or on foot. Coetzee does not seek to create an internally consistent imaginary world. He does not go in for long descriptions and if you want to pick points of practicality and analyse them, you will be disappointed. But that would be to miss the point of the book.

The timelessness and placelessness is central to the book's meaning and value. As I write this, the UK media is dominated by the news that policemen have taken money from journalists in return for information and for turning a blind eye to telephone hacking. This is life at the frontier of 'civilisation' today in affluent western Europe, where you have to decide how much complicity you are prepared to accept and to live with. That is the point of this book, I think. It is about boundaries and what it means to cross them.

He does not really try to provide an answer to this overwhelming question. But the novel poses it and exposes it brilliantly.

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge (Holiday Reading part 2)

A novel from 1974 from a writer I have often heard described as a bit forgotten or underestimated. It is a clever book, with a deceptively simple style that disguises some deep emotions and some dark deeds.

Set in South East England at an Italian-owned and run bottling plant for wine and spirits, it centres on the experiences of two English girls who work there. The narrative perspective shifts, illustrating with subtlety how much is misunderstood between the characters.

I wondered while reading it whether the characters were really believable but by the time I finished it I thought they were. Much is unsaid or merely hinted. But is life not like that?

It is quite short, 200 pages of large print in the Abacus edition I read. I think it is, most of all, diverting. A bit quirky, a bit strange, a bit unsettling, funny in parts and dream-like in others. It also, to today's reader, reminds us how much day to day life has changed in Britain in the last 40 years or so.

It reminded me a little, stylistically, of the Ballad of Peckham Rye, by Muriel Spark, which was written in 1960. Very allusive (a bit too allusive for my taste, in the case of the Ballad of Peckham Rye), leaving much to the reader's interpretation.

But, all in all, an intriguing read.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (Holiday Reading part 1)

This is a brilliant and engrossing novel. I won't say too much about the plot, except that it rattles along and is moving in many different ways. But the story matters so I won't write anything here that might spoil it for those who have yet to read the book.

It was recommended to me in the highest possible terms by a voracious reader of American fiction and I was not disappointed.

The book is constructed around the development of comic books in the 1930s and 1940s. That makes it sound geeky - it assuredly is not. But the parallels and overlaps with the comic book genre are delightful to identify as the story unfolds. Even the ending invites the question 'sequel?',  which is I am sure another deliberate link.

Performance magic and illusion plays a bit part in the story and it reminded me that this is becoming a bit of a genre in its own right. Last year I read Carter Beats the Devil  by Glen David Gold; and a while ago I read The Bullet Trick by Louise Welsh. The protagonists in both novels are magicians and I think there is something about illusionists that meets our desire to believe in preternaturally insightful people. I suppose Welsh's novel is a lot grittier and the magician involved makes no claim to insight at all - on the contrary.

But the illusionistic aspects of this novel fit perfectly with the overall themes of dislocation, uncertainty and the varieties of human love.

A beautifully crafted novel, with enjoyment to be had at different levels. I loved it.

Friday, 8 July 2011

The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry

I bought this when I was travelling and I finished 'Roumeli' so was book bereft. It is a very easy read, mainly because Fry writes as he speaks and it is a very smooth and comfortable process to follow his account of his early professional life. He is so multi talented there is much to enjoy in his descriptions of the creative process in acting, writing, screenwriting and criticism.

Lots of good anecdotes, too.

It reads a bit as if he bashed it out quickly but as a cheerful and entertaining book it is pretty good, especially if you live in the UK and know the people he writes about.

Dropped in from time to time are some pithy observations on things like celebrity culture (he points out that getting all moony over a football player or an actress is better than doing the same thing over a political or religious zealot, as people have in the past).

I read it in a couple of days - it is very comfortable and he delights in using unusual words, which is fun if you have a good dictionary. Mind you, he does use a word that is not in my Shorter Oxford, which is a rare event. The word is 'colaphise', which means to beat, or buffet. So now you know.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Roumeli by Patrick Leigh Fermor

I have read a number of 'Paddy' Leigh Fermor's books, including the most famous pair, 'A Time of Gifts' and 'Between the Woods and the Water'. These were given to me while I was living in Japan by a very kind colleague, who visited from the UK and was shocked to discover that (this was pre Amazon and online bookselling) English literature was not all that widely available, even in Tokyo. The two books were part of a package that included Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. It was a wonderful gift, quite unnecessary and unexpected, which made it even more welcome.

'The Traveller's Tree', PLF's account of his travels in the Caribbean, is superb.

'Roumeli' is all about PLF's travels and war experiences in Northern Greece. 'Roumeli' is not a name found on maps; it describes a loosely bordered region. The book is enjoyable but not that easy to read, since PLF is massively learned and his prose demonstrates that, sometimes, making it hard work. You have to admire his deep knowledge of Greece and the astonishing detail of his descriptions. It has its poetic, evocative moments. But there are a lot of lists; in that sense, it shares a stumbling block to enjoyment with the Iliad.

The book was written in the 1960s and obviously it describes a Greece that has changed a great deal. I recently started reading 'City of Djinns' by William Dalrymple but stopped as I realised that his description of India was already outdated. So travel books can age well or badly. 'Roumeli' does not age all that well but PLF's style is unsurpassed, provided you can handle the abstruse vocabulary.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Country Driving - A Chinese Road Trip by Peter Hessler

Unlike many books I read, this one is about something I have studied for many years and can occasionally claim (often with far too little justification) some familiarity, namely China. My degree is in Chinese and I lived in China as a student in 1983/84, long before the opening up and reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping a few years earlier had really begun to bite. I have read a lot of books about China and Chinese society.

This is without doubt one of the best. Hessler is a journalist on the New Yorker and he writes with an easy, humorous style. But what really makes the book stand out for this reader is that he brings the westerner's eye to bear with humanity and empathy but also with scepticism; in other words, with exactly the mix that most intelligent observers like to think they employ. But he really does it.

I have spent the best part of 30 years learning Chinese and I am still in the foothills of the language. Hessler  clearly has an impressive grasp of the language, even allowing for the narrative requirement to interpret meaning sometimes where a precise and perfect understanding of every nuance of language is missing. But that is part of the book's appeal - he makes no pretence, as some have done, of getting 'inside the Chinese mind'. He just writes as he finds.

His account of Chinese driving law is very funny but there are two major settings for the book: the village of Sancha and the boom towns of Zhejiang province. In both cases, he is the outsider and the observer who wins the confidence and trust of people in ways that allow him to tell their stories without patronising them.

His descriptions of how property law works, how people relate to the Communist Party and to government in general, how business works and how social mobility is changing China at an unimaginable pace are succinct and measured. He does not judge China by western values but he does draw comparisons which are instructive.

There a many books about doing business in China, usually called things like 'Dancing with the Dragon' or 'Behind the Great Wall'. I have not read them all, of course, but I have read a few. None of them will give someone interested in understanding China the insights that this book gives. Nor with as much humour and sheer reading pleasure.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

A big, juicy novel, weighing in at over 1000 pages. Powerful themes, lots of melodrama and, like some of Dickens, written originally in instalments for a magazine. This latter quality is visible in the ebb and flow of  climax, description and plot.

A quick practical piece of advice: I read the Penguin version, having discarded the Oxford Classics translation as too full of typos. It seriously put me off. The Penguin translation by Robin Buss is much better.

The plot is complicated and one of the main themes is how people can change and transform themselves. I recommend paying careful attention about a quarter of the way through, when the names of those who, at the outset of the book, do the Count down, are changed as they become ennobled. This helps later on, when  Dumas uses their new titles all the time.

The book is full of drama and colour and I don't think it is pretentious to see in the Count the model for all those fictional figures we know and love, from James Bond to Jason Bourn to Sherlock Holmes, who acquire superior powers and intellect that allow them to do fantastical things. Indeed, one has to suspend one's disbelief a fair bit to enjoy the book. Characters, especially the protagonist, become protean and acceptance of disguise as a viable and practical venture is necessary. A bit like those Shakespeare plays when someone dresses up as a woman and deceives even their own family about their true identity by doing so.

The Count also has a dark side, which gives Dumas the opportunity to invoke themes of providence, fate and what the divine really means in the human setting.

The historical context is fascinating. The post-Bonaparte politics of France are well elucidated in the notes and the conflicting loyalties of the characters are very much part of the story. The France described by Dumas is on the cusp of what we can now describe as modernity; the telegraph plays a pivotal role in one sub plot and mass readership of newspapers in another. Living as we do during a financial crisis, it is also very interesting to see how Dumas paints the motivations and practices of bankers. Not flattering, as you can imagine.

All in all, this is a big, blousy, enjoyable novel. Ideal if you are going on a long journey and need some reliable diversion and entertainment.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism by Slavenka Drackulić

This is a great book for people, like me, who imagine Eastern Europe to be full of cynically wise, battle-scarred (politically) individuals who have acquired through suffering a deeper insight into the true nature of the human condition. That is an unreserved compliment to the author, who captures beautifully the diversity of the political experience under the Soviet system but also the bleakness that homogenised it.

The format of the book is a series of fables, told by animals, each about a different Eastern European, formerly Communist country. The language is subtle and humorous and it even crossed my mind to suggest my children read it. But I thought better of it. A fair amount of prior knowledge is needed to enjoy this book. The chapter on Jaruzelski does not even mention his name, for example.

But this is a thoroughly enjoyable read on a number of levels. It reminds you, not least, of some of the lunacies of the Communist era, like the Ceausescus' nutty approach to dogs. But it also digs deep into the banalities and oppressiveness of the system and reminds us that its legacy is very much with us today.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

This is a lovely book. Wise, witty and restrained. It is a mixture of memoir, story and essay. The structure is based around the elements, each chapter dealing with one of them. The writer's training and career as a chemist provides the narrative flow and there is profound commentary on the nature of knowledge and science, and how they relate to human existence.

Later in the book, the writer reflects on the success of his Auschwitz memoir 'If this is a man', and how its fame affected his position as a working industrial chemist.

His style is unaffected and humane. All in all, a joy.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Thank You For Smoking by Christopher Buckley

This is a very snappy, enjoyable read, with lots of tasty one liners. An example: "Strange how in America, in the 1950s, at the height of its industrial and imperial power, men drank double-martinis for lunch. Now, in its decline, they drank fizzy water. Somewhere something had gone terribly wrong."

Or, "His whole life was meetings. Did they have this many meetings in the Middle Ages? In Ancient Rome and Greece? No wonder their civilisations died out, they probably figured decadence and the Visigoths were preferable to more meetings."

Essentially, it is an extended satire with libertarian leanings on the cynicism of modern American media and communications culture. The story concerns the lead spokesman for the tobacco lobby and his emotionally stunted attempts to deal with the moral ambivalence of his job and motivations.

It is great fun and Buckley has a whale of a time making the point, again and again, that everyone has their price and that, as the lead character says, we all have to pay the mortgage. I think the band Dead Kennedys, in the 1980s, had a song called 'We are all prostitutes'. Same basic point. Everyone in this book is out for what they can get.

But this is an artful and clever book, though it sometimes reads like a film screenplay. It was made into a very successful film, so maybe that was always in the author's mind.

I chose to buy it after reading in one of those 'my week' type columns in the Financial Times that Buckley was a great writer. I think it was written by Malcolm Rifkind, of all people. That is the sort of incongruity Buckley himself would love.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

The Belle Epoque, those 20 years or so before the First World War, have long held a fascination for me. I have read Proust's 'In Search of Lost Time' twice, in different translations, which must testify something, as it is set in precisely this period. This book gives a new perspective on those 'vertigo years', as Europe spiralled into madness, as well as providing a delicately-woven tapestry of how objects and lives intersect over a century.

The book's central narrative concerns a collection of Japanese carvings - netsuke - and their history within the author's family. It becomes a beautiful and elegaic meditation on the nature of physical art and its relationship with real, human lives.

The Jewish family became wealthy in Odessa and Vienna and then fragmented under the intolerable pressures of Nazism. Any account of the Jewish experience of the Nazi years brings prickling to the eyes and this is no exception. But the author is dispassionate, using objects as the foundation of his story; this is very powerful and profoundly moving.

The British (and I venture to think, the American) reader today can only marvel at the international nature of continental Europe's intellectual life in the first half of the twentieth century. This awe-inspiring cosmopolitanism, when languages were not a barrier since everyone seems to have been fluent in at least three, is well described by Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, as well. Artistic sensibilities seem to have been heightened by this broad and flexible cultural legacy. Opera, music, art, poetry - all of them seem to have occupied a far greater slice of attention than they do in today's diffuse and cacophonous Anglo-American culture.

The custodian of the Japanese carvings at their time of greatest danger is virtually unknowable to the author as she was a servant. The information sources of family letters, legal documents and official records are simply not available in relation to her, as they are for her rich employers. This raises again the question that often, for this writer, emerges from accounts of the past. Is it only the rich, with the leisure and the opportunity that wealth affords, who can ever populate our history? I have often looked with astonishment at the intellectual achievements of people like, say, Charles Darwin or Bertrand Russell. But when you realise how privileged they were, you wonder what others with the same privilege might have done.

Today, it is remarkable how many famous people have famous parents. In acting, of course, it is very common. Is is simply that growing up in an environment ,where famous and brilliant people are around daily. imparts some confidence or lustre to the mind and ambition? I suspect so.

This is an utterly captivating and thoroughly enjoyable book. It is about travel, war, time, family and, most of all, the enduring nature of aesthetics for the human mind, in spite of all that the world throws against it.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The Siege of Krishnapur by J G Farrell

To the reader of today, one of the most interesting things about this well-paced and beguiling novel is that it was written in 1973. It makes a bold and intriguing effort to get inside the minds of the colonial settlers of the 1850s, as they wrestle with the consequences of the Indian Mutiny. But the reader of today is conscious of India primarily as the rising economic giant, where software and call centres grow with astonishing pace. The world's idea of India is having to be updated constantly. So the novel is a snapshot both of the time at which it is set, 1857, and of British attitudes to India at the time of writing.

The characters of the novel are drawn almost exclusively from the British colonial class and Farrell devotes a lot of intellectual energy to portraying their thought processes as they deal with a bloody and in many ways horrific uprising. Part of this artifice requires him to describe real horrors in the most mundane and workmanlike terms, reflecting the distant and incomprehending viewpoint of his characters. This is sometimes hilarious.

The all-consuming concern of some protagonists for doctrinal disputes within the Church of England, even in the face of impending death, is both amusing and, to the modern eye, almost satirical in its description. But it serves a purpose in reminding us that such matters were of real significance. After all, what are the equivalents in today's Britain? Whether the X Factor is better than Britain's Got Talent? Whether nuclear power should be eschewed?  What would we worry about if we thought we would be either violently murdered or starve to death within the next couple of days?

The description of the Victorian sensibility for progress and its virtues is excellent. Sometimes, the portrayal of the Victorian mind can seem somewhat caricatured. But this is a book of primary colours, and the story rattles along with a lot of humour while covering essentially inhumane and desperate events.

I liked it.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Imperium by Ryszard Kapuściński

I think I have read most of Ryszard Kapuściński's books. He is Polish and, as far as I know, all of his work in English has been translated from his original tongue. Some styles of writing get lost in the translation process but his is quite memorable and consistently so across his works. It is vivid, personal and practical. He does not go in for florid metaphors. He doesn't need to, as his subject matter is so compelling.

This work is one of his best. It contains accounts of his travels in the the USSR between 1989 and 1991, as the empire ('Imperium") that was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics started to collapse and fragment. This process continues today and he rightly predicted that the post-Soviet transition would take many years. It is that fact, perhaps above all others, that makes this book fresh and still relevant, as we watch today's Russia continuing to struggle with the legacies of the Soviet era.

For Kapuściński, these terrible legacies are fourfold: the remnants of the old regime, like the nomenklatura, the police and the army; the persistence of fear, since between 1918 and 1953, between 50 and 100 million Soviet citizens were murdered; poverty; and ecological horrors like the Aral Sea. It is worth mentioning that his report of what has happened to the Aral Sea is spare and unbelievably depressing.

He has fascinating and wise things to say about historical change, that apply almost everywhere in today's world. He notes that the former USSR went very rapidly from a position where information was rare and unreliable and fundamentally subversive to a totalitarian system, to a position, like many other countries, where it is so varied and abundant to bring whole new social problems. He also notes, more insightfully perhaps, that the pace of political change now outstrips the pace of change in ordinary life. Governments and institutions come and go in the space of years or months; meanwhile, people live pretty much as before, with the same dripping tap or long bus ride to work.

And he sees 3 black clouds over the 21st century: nationalism, racism and religious fundamentalism. These threats, all dependent for their existence on some ill feeling against some other, loom not only over the former USSR, of course. 

Some of what he writes about makes you catch your breath. The Great Famine in the Ukraine, when Stalin deliberately starved millions of people to death, is one of those things we sort of think we know about but which bears repeated consideration and scrutiny. The sheer awfulness of daily life the USSR is quite horrifying in its banality and ubiquity. As he points out, even the material privilege available to those who for hierarchical or other reasons could obtain it under the system was piffling to western eyes. Outrage because an official has a few extra supplies found in his car. Hardly grand corruption and personal kleptocracy, on the scale we see today in Russia.

And his visit to Siberia, where so many death camps were run by successive Soviet regimes, is unforgettable.

This is an excellent book, enhanced by a short but limpidly written afterword by Margaret Atwood. 

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Hurufites

"The disciples of this martyr, the Hurufites - mystics of the numeral, cabalists, and diviners - believed that the origins of the universe could be comprehended in terms of the figures 28 and 32. Using these numerals one can explain the mystery of each thing. It was the Hurufites' belief that God expressed himself through beauty: the more beautiful something was, the more God manifested himself in it. Beauty was their criterion for valuating the phenomenal world.

They searched for God in the human face. Although Muslims, they saw God in the faces of beautiful women."

From 'Imperium' by Ryszard Kapuściński

Friday, 22 April 2011

Last Train from Liguria, by Christine Dwyer Hickey

A nice, if slightly episodic novel. Good pace and an enjoyable story. Some things grate a little - the sometimes clumsy tricks to give the translation of Italian dialogue without actually doing it in brackets or something; the superficial evocation of period, using glimpses of newspapers and so on; and some cliched involvement of mysterious priests and nuns.

But these are the quibbles of a cynic. It is a good story, well written, with some nice insights into the nature of being Irish in the 20th century and the sense, that I suspect befalls many among later generations, that the drama and passion of the war years will never be repeated.

It also reminded me what an amazingly rich source of story telling WWII is, and has been. The racial nature of the horrors, the primary colours of the moral choices - so many things around which a story with psychological moment can be created.

American readers may justifiably feel a little aggrieved; the American characters are defined by their Americanism and they are two dimensional.

But this is a good read.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

The Kaiser's Holocaust, by David Olosuga and Casper W Erichsen

A really well written and well paced book. It deals with the genocides perpetrated by German colonial authorities in South West Africa (today's Namibia). It explains how Nazi racial exterminations were the legacy of the ideas and policies then put into practice.

It also provides a crisp summary of the thinking that lay behind Nazi theories and policies on race. Ideas like the 'untermenschen' and 'racial purity'. Fascinatingly, German plans in 1918 for a huge colony extending from the east coast of Africa to the west, to provide 'liebensraum' for the German people, were resurrected by the Nazis. But the foundation of the whole thing on the idea that some races are naturally superior to others, and that extermination of the latter is a dirty but necessary job, endured with the support of eugenics theorists.

Interesting too to see that Theodore Roosevelt was such a racist.

And when one reads today of the tensions between indigenous peoples in Central America and those seeking to exploit oil and other commodities, you have to fear that the imposition of the industrialised economic perspective will always harm those outside it.

So, I recommend this book highly. It joins up events across time in a way that is genuinely enlightening, at least for me.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

False Dawn, by John Gray

I just read this book, quickly, over just a few days. Well, quickly for me. I do read of people who get through astonishing quantities of books but there is more to life than reading.

It was written in 1998 and that remains a drawback for the reader in 2011. You have to admire the writer's prescience - he predicted the global economic crisis, based on his analysis of worldwide political and ideological trends. But some of the book has become dated.

His basic premise is that the Washington consensus - the idea that US style free market capitalism is the natural order of things and that all peoples of the world, given the chance and all other things being equal, would choose it - is completely wrong. He also argues that free market capitalism erodes society in many unrecognised ways and that the market does not inexorably lead to prosperity and a society's success.

It is a polemic - he is putting across a point of view - but it is thought provoking and powerful. From the vantage point of 2011, it is not easy to see how he is wrong. The feeling that the world is largely adrift on a sea of ethnic, religious and materials-based difference is hard to resist.

His prescription for dealing with it is to accept difference and not seek overarching philosophies that apply to all societies. And he is right that the Washington consensus is similar to Marxism, in its core belief that 'one size fits all'.

A good book - worth a few days' reading.

How do you choose a book?

How do you choose which books to read? I have two main means of doing so: recommendations from people I know and reviews in the newspapers and magazines I read. Since these latter are chiefly the Financial Times and the Economist (for work reasons), I tend to end up reading a fair number of heavy factual books.

I try to alternate between fiction and non-fiction. For fiction, I am disinclined to waste time reading books that have not earned the respect and affection of those millions of readers who have gone before me. If you can read a book by an undisputed genius like Dickens or Hemingway, why take the risk of trying a writer lacking in similarly large quantities of unsolicited testimonials, in the form of cross references and adaptations?

I do read new and experimental writers. But if something is not very good, I will give up. I used to believe this was vaguely immoral, that there was something self-improving about reaching the end even of a book I was not enjoying very much. But age brings wisdom and life is too short. Unless you know from years of positive comment that a book contains something to make it worth persisting with, if you don't like it - drop it.