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.