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.