Thursday, 6 December 2012

My Friend Maigret by Georges Simenon

I have been meaning to read a Maigret novel for, well, years. When I was a child I read most of Agatha Christie's books, before moving on to Ngaio Marsh. I then lost interest in detective fiction, though in recent years I have picked up the odd P D James or Iain Rankin.

I deliberately bought an old Penguin edition, wanting to hark back to the green volumes that I associated with detective novels many years ago.

This was actually a very enjoyable read but the denouement was disappointing. Maigret is a great character and the description of 1950s France is affectionate and evocative. The basic story is that he has to go to the island of Porquerolles off the south coast of France when an idler is murdered after making claims that Maigret is his friend. He has in tow an English detective, sent from Scotland Yard to  observe his famous methods. After a bit of wine drinking and sunbathing, they solve the mystery and the obvious suspects are arrested.

The evocation of Porquerolles is really vivid and intriguing. But Simenon just lets the Englishman's role fade away. I was expecting some irony or surprise but it didn't come. And the arrest of the murderer was too quick and perfunctory.

But it gave me an appetite for more Maigret, for sure.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

I loved this book. The history of its writing and the snippets of literary criticism contained in the notes are fascinating, too.

The writing itself is very, very unsettling and the writer brilliantly sustains a sombre and disquieting tone that suffuses even the most quotidian scenes.

Lovely evocation of Caribbean nature and culture and clever, clever use of language to create mood.

Top drawer stuff.

Crash by J G Ballard

One of the weirdest books I have ever read. It is about the sexual fetishisation of car crashes. It is written in an overblown, hallucinatory style. The story is superficially realistic but is underpinned by a lot of fantastical description and detail.

The huge number of car crashes, for example. It is as if the main characters cannot even pop down to the shops without causing or seeing a car crash. But that sort of literalism is to quibble with what is really a meditation on the psychology of death, violence and, most of all, sex. There are lots of detailed descriptions of sex acts and the various fluids and physiognomies involved. It is really about perversion.

Sometimes it is funny, when it just goes over the top and it is impossible not to laugh. But overall it is a disturbing book, raising difficult questions about the way in which we imbue material objects with meaning and purpose drawn from our inner, human, sexual life. The book was written in the 1970s and today, it would probably be about mobile phones and other communication devices. Is it not amazing how much feeling and commitment we invest in these mobile communication tools? And is it not even more amazing that we don't seem able to see through and reject the seductive marketing that goes with them?

Crash is about that and a lot more. Great book.

The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene

A good example of a Greene novel - spare prose, very English, hidden menace in the storyline. It is set in wartime London; the principal character is Arthur Rowe, who is unable to serve in the military and cuts himself off from the war effort and society in general. But he is ensnared in the work of some Fifth Columnists and, thereafter, the story becomes a straightforward thriller.

It is enjoyable both for the sheer excellence of Greene's writing and the period flavour of the story. A diversion, but a well structured and interesting one.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

One of the odder Dickens novels, in that the slightly stop-go nature of its writing is evident in the structure of the story. But it contains many memorable characters and the death of Little Nell is, as billed, melodramatic in the extreme. The best thing about it is the evocation of the rapidly changing society of Dickens's time, with graphic scenes from the industrial hell that was the Black Country and the grey, foggy London that we know from so many other of his novels.

Not all that much comedy - a dark book, all in all.

The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi

An intensely serious and penetrating book, that I certainly felt I had to respect and venerate, in a certain way, by only reading when I knew I could concentrate and give it the attention it deserves.

It addresses, with amazing humanity and insight, the astonishing evil that was the Holocaust and the mentality of those that made it happen. But Levi is a Jew and a survivor of the death camps, so he commands our attention when he speaks in such measured and powerful words.

We must all wonder how such incredibly evil things could have happened. This book goes much further in answering that question than any detailed account of the historical events as it examines the psychology of those who perpetrated these evils and those who suffered at their hands.

A tense, sobering book that ought really to be required reading for every European.

China in Ten Words by Yu Hua

This is a fairly hyped book; but it is justified, I think. The author is Chinese, which gives him a head start when it comes to understanding China and its myriad contradictions. He writes really interestingly about the Cultural Revolution in particular, and its enduring impact on so many Chinese people of a certain age.

The format of the book is simple - he chooses ten Chinese words, like 'writing', 'disparity', 'leader' and 'people', then offers an essay on each, drawing as he does so lessons about modern Chinese society. Much of what he says is, in a very measured way, critical of today's China. But he lives and works there and has not been persecuted politically, as far as I know, so he is carving out a position that commands credibility.

A refreshing and intriguing book.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

A HIstory of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor

This is the book that came out of, and prints pretty much word for word, a series on British BBC radio where the head of the British Museum talks about 100 objects in the collection and surveys world history in the process. I listened to a few of the radio episodes and enjoyed them but a book is a much better format, not least because it has pictures, which help to colour in the ideas in the text.

Each object is described and discussed in what was mostly the script for the radio programmes. Neil McGregor writes cleverly, humorously and with great erudition. It is an ideal book to read occasionally, when you have about 5 minutes to spare.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith

I wanted to read this because it is so often dramatised, quoted and referred to by other writers. It was originally serialised in Punch magazine, a British humorous journal that went out of business about 20 years ago but which was for most of the twentieth century a British institution. It is a very Punch-ish sort of book. Funny, in a gentle and ironic way.

Weedon did the drawings, which are alright but don't add all that much, and George did the writing. It is easy to read and quietly amusing, as long as you are familiar with the British class system and the niceties of social mores it brings about.

I enjoyed it but it is an entertainment (no shame in that) rather than an attempt to capture serious meanings.

God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

For people who have never been believers in religion, like me, this book is an invigorating cold shower that dusts off the ideas you sort of knew but never articulated and reassures you of the righteousness of the atheist view. It is so well written and well argued - funny frequently and simply brilliant at explaining, with appropriate levels of irony, the absurdities of the religious view.

A great, great read, especially for people 'of faith', who will surely have to resort to the last intellectual refuge of the religious, namely the assertion that the Supreme Being is somehow testing us and that faith is virtuous in some vague way, in order to deal with its arguments.

Recommended to all.

Monday, 27 August 2012

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

I am a fan of Alain de Botton's books. They are similar in format - plenty of pictures and lots of fascinating allusions to great thinkers and artists.

This book lives up to expectations. Each chapter is about an aspect of travelling - anticipation, curiosity, the inspiration of awe - and each relies on a 'guide', a writer, artist or philosopher whose ideas are relevant.

There is also humour, as the author recounts his own travelling experiences in an elliptical and self deprecating style. A good book to read on a train or a plane, naturally. But also a diverting and entertaining arrangement of ideas and insights, quite loosely revolving around travel.

Very enjoyable.

A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir

A short book, less than 100 pages long, recounting the death and, retrospectively, the life of de Beauvoir's mother. It is beautifully written and the translation is excellent. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the translator in this Penguin edition is Patrick O'Brian, the celebrated novelist and no mean stylist in his own right.

I enjoyed the setting - Paris in the 1960s - as well as the emotional and philosophical underpinnings of this fine memoir. Even the odd appearance by Jean Paul Sartre ("Sartre was taking the plane for Prague the next day: should I go with him?") is evocative.

Sad, as someone dies, but also uplifting in its detailed and true to life description of what that means for those left behind.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

The Outsider, by Albert Camus

An unsettling novel. Short and deceptively simple, it is written from the point of view of someone who lives by the existentialist code - we are here, we live, we die - there is no meaning behind it all. The book captures really well how repellent this is to 'normal' people, who take cognizance of feelings like loyalty and ideas like right and wrong.

It is not an existentialist manifesto - far from it, in my opinion. But it does highlight the questions asked by the existentialist world view and invites our sympathy for those who have the courage and integrity to live it, rather than just talk about it.

I read the Penguin translation, by Joseph Laredo, which is excellent.

Postwar, a history of Europe since 1945, by Tony Judt

I was a bit surprised to find the word 'magisterial' absent from then encomia on the cover and flyleaf of this book, as it is just that. A wonderful, entertaining book about almost everything that has happened in Europe since the Second World War. He deploys quotations brilliantly (it seems a feature of many of his books) and just reading those at the beginning of each chapter would be rewarding, even if you ignored the rest of the text.

I was ill in bed quite a lot when I read this and it helped to have that time for reading set aside for me. It is a long book (over 800 pages of small print) but it really flows along. The writer's personal enthusiasms, for Italian and French film makers, for the Beatles, for social democracy, become evident as you go along but that is good. He is both a recounter of history and an interpreter of it from a reasoned and well informed perspective.

And amazing facts present themselves. In 1968, some 30,000 Jews were expelled from Poland because they were, well, Jews. There was hardly any deNazification in Austria after the war. Stalin and Hitler's real legacy was the destruction of the multicultural, multiethnic Europe that existed in many parts of Europe before ethnic boundaries were forced to coincide with national ones. The use of German by Jews helped enormously to maintain its position as an international language, used across frontiers. Once they were gone, it lost out rapidly to English. There is irony here.

A superb book.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Nemesis by Philip Roth

I have been a Roth fan for years and this, his latest book and the winner of the Booker prize last year, is  as excellent as so many or his others. Familiar themes are here - Jewishness, especially of the New York variety; mortality; the motivations of people; and family.

It is a short book - a novella, I suppose. The core of it is the mind of the protagonist, Bucky Cantor. Without ever explicitly laying it out for you, Roth pieces together the psychology and thinking of this character quite brilliantly.

Polio is the driver of the action and the book is set in the 1940s when the precise cause and means of transmission of the disease were unknown. From the start, even when the narration is of events untroubling in themselves, there is a backbeat of foreboding that comes from the subtlety of the writing.

A very human book - it's great.

Naked by David Sedaris

Really funny collection of extended anecdotes, about Sedaris's life and background. Of course, they can't be literally true, but he easily carries you over the line of credibility because he writes so amusingly. Barbed and quite profound observations implied by each episode, about prejudice, hypocrisy and consumerism.

I really enjoyed it.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Solace by Belinda McKeon

This is a decent novel about young professionals coming of age in today's Ireland and dealing with the tensions between generations, between town and country and between families that flow from the sudden transition from relative national poverty to being a leading edge, affluent EU country.

It is a little superficial at times - the characters are a bit two dimensional. But it is well paced and nicely written, though the ending is, perhaps necesssarily, inconclusive. There is a also a major event that somehow doesn't add anything to the plot, even though it is extremely dramatic.

But a good holiday read.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I was not expecting to enjoy this but I did - a lot. It is a reimagining of the story of Achilles and Patroclus - how they went to fight with the Greeks at Troy, how they died, and so on. But it is retold as a love story, narrated by Patroclus. A lot of writing about Greek myths struggles to deal with the involvement of the Gods - it is not easy to deal with the intimate engagement in the story of supernatural beings. But in this book this is done extremely well - no clouds or lyres here.

I recommend it, especially to people with an interest in the great story of the fall of Troy and the Homeric epics.

Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

A rather melodramatic but nonetheless enjoyable story about the evils of wealth and social jealousy. Goriot is the doting father of two girls who expends his vast wealth meeting their every need as they secure themselves in Parisian high society. The whole story is mediated through the person of Rastignac, a student from the provinces who is seduced by the rococo and superficial niceties of 'society' but, through the hellish experiences of Goriot, realises his error.

The best thing about the book is its cynicism. All of the characters, except perhaps Goriot himself who is deluded as much as anything, have clear character failings and the Paris that is described is beset with petty social conventions and, at the higher levels, wrestling with a rarified and self indulgent existential angst. It is gritty and dark.

The translation I read was the Oxford Classics, which I don't recommend. The style was stilted and there were typos, which I hate. I should have read the Penguin.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison

The commentary on the back of this book claims it was the first of what has become a genre - the confessional memoir. It may indeed be because of what came later, namely lots of books about misery and horrible things happening to children behind a veneer of material comfort and social respectability, that I read this with more foreboding about what would come next than was justified.

This is a beautifully written and very detailed ('granular' is the in word at the moment, I think) account of the life and death of the author's father. It is a meditation on family relationships; 'blood is thicker than  water', as the saying in Britain goes. But it is also a vivid description of family life in post-war Britain, with lots of memory-jogging observations for those of us who have lived through some of the same period.

Most of all, though, it is both a paean to and a critique of the father, Arthur Morrison. So much to admire in him and, also, so much to criticise. All this is seen from the perspective of the son - filial love and filial resentment competing with each other throughout the book.

It is a lovely piece of work.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

This short novel was his first. It is written in a very simple style, in unadorned prose. It tells the story of a man and his trials, not least of which is his intense awareness of the social expectations and duties of someone in his position in the Nigerian village where he lives.

Most of the book is about his life and how he perceives it. The simple style sometimes creates a strong sense of foreboding - you just know (or you think you do) that something bad is about to happen. But it doesn't, by and large. Episodes are described in the same dispassionate language, leaving the reader to judge the motivations and moral righteousness of the characters.

The story touches on the arrival of white missionaries and that is when things begin to fall apart. It is a delightful novel, deceptively simple but raising some profound questions about what it means to be human and to live a good life.

All the Wrong Places - adrift in the politics of Asia - by James Fenton

I began this book with some misgivings, expecting it to be outdated and overtaken by events, since it was written about Fenton's experiences as a foreign correspondent in South East Asia during the 1970s. My misgivings were well founded, in one sense, but in ways that are interesting in themselves.

Fenton's accounts seem almost quaint, actually, and they generate a feeling of nostalgia for a time when the rough diamond western journalist could, clad in sweat stained khaki and clutching a notebook, hang out with the Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge and report from an exoticism that has no equivalent today. Video clips of missiles striking buildings in dusty, sun baked villages in Afghanistan or Iraq just don't seem so intriguing. Perhaps the politics are missing. Fenton was a proud socialist and saw the wars of the 1970s in SE Asia very much as US imperialism being beaten back by a morally superior, popular cause. That in itself seems very dated to us now. Can one imagine a journalist being politically 'committed' (a term of praise for the 1970s left) now, in Pakistan or in one of the African conflicts? The left/right dichotomy has all but disappeared, leaving only confusion and relativism.

So Fenton's book seems to take us back to a time in some ways simpler. He writes brilliantly about the fall of Saigon, portraying for us the empty hotels and the select band of foreigners remaining and living a sort of postmodern colonialism, denying while at the same time enjoying an intrinsic advantage stemming from race and wealth. None of them would ever be in the same position as the desperate Vietnamese, trying to escape from the advancing Vietcong.

And that is one of the ambiguities of Fenton's account, the occasional uncertainty about whether he is an observer or a participant. I suppose in this book he is the latter and in his reporting very much the former.

I found it interesting having travelled in SE Asia in the early 1980s, when people like Marcos were still in power. Without that background, however, I think I would have found it too much out of time.

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Jane Austen - you gotta love her. Beautiful prose, a perfectly crafted world of manners and feelings and then a nicely paced story about esteem, love and social delusion. This is the first of hers I have read for many years and it is easy to forget just what a class act she is. Of course, in the UK, nearly all of her novels have been adapted for film or TV so her mass appeal has grown a lot in recent years. And rightly so.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

Dickens is, quite simply, the Guv'nor. Pace, style, characters - all faultless. Some of his books go on a bit but not this one, his first. It was written for monthly publication so it is episodic. But the good thing about that is the regular narrative crescendos you get as the story unfolds. It also includes many digressions, as characters relate stories and anecdotes, notably one that goes into fascinating detail about Edinburgh topography and customs - well, fascinating if you live in Edinburgh, as I do.

Dickens's well known disdain for law and politics is on full display and his account of a by-election is hilarious but acerbic at the same time. His descriptions of politicians' pomposities and misguided motivations could have been written about the Leveson Inquiry here in the UK, which is currently examining the corrupt relationship between politicians and media owners. And you just know, when legal process enters the story, that ridicule and comic exaggeration is on the way.

I really enjoyed this book. Lots of great characters and, most of all, a brilliant asseveration (to use a Dickensian word if ever there was one) of the sheer joy to be had in human existence.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

Affecting. A bit mysterious. About animals. Naïve in style. It these ways, this is similar to Life of Pi, the author's big selling and Booker Prize-winning novel of a few years' ago. But if that sounds like an acquired taste, don't let it put you off. This is a rather brilliant book, with a huge amount of meaning and emotion packed into fewer than 200 large-ish print pages. The narrator is a writer, who had a big hit and then struggles with his next book, which is about the Holocaust - echoes of Martel's own experience, surely? The best thing about the book is the artless way in which a grim foreboding is created - a bit like those horror films where you just know that the appearance of the cute little girl holding a teddy is the precursor to horrible violence. The violence in this book is allusive rather than narrated. But the use of animals as proxies for humanity is incredibly moving, drawing as it does from the well of sympathy we have for them, our innocent and trusting charges. Which works powerfully in this book to make us think - hard - about how we can treat people like, well, animals.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne

Yes, we are talking about the David Byrne. Talking Heads, all that. But this book nicely illustrates his polymath nature. It is funny, self deprecating, ironic and polemical, all at the same time. He writes about cycling and his experience of it in different places. He takes a folding bike when he goes travelling, unpacks it in his hotel room and then takes off. His observations are wry and amusing and he uses words like 'funky' and 'groove' with no trace of irony. For those who are familiar with his pallid yet intense persona as lead singer with Talking Heads, it may come as no surprise to learn that music was what allowed him to interact with people in ways he knows he could never have done without it.

He is very passionate about urban design and how people live, and can live, in cities. We could all do with a lot more of his creative and lively views on superficially dull matters like road furniture and air conditioning.

His style is very easy going and, well, like a diary. It has a particular rhythm and tone - a groove, actually, that I really got into. Nice.

Monday, 7 May 2012

The Education of Hyman Kaplan by Leo Rosten (originally published under the name Leonard Q Ross)

I bought this book after hearing it described by someone being interviewed on the radio. I pick up a lot of recommendations from listening to people talk about books, usually on the radio. It is hilarious, humane and gentle. No wonder it is a classic to so many people.

It is really a short collection of stories from the New Yorker, where they were first published. The main character, Hyman Kaplan, is a Polish immigrant, learning English for citizenship purposes in the US. All the stories are set in his class at the American Night Preparatory School for Adults. The characters are sketched in with a few subtle strokes but the real comedy lies in the language and the misunderstandings of the students, recounted with a sympathetic irony that keeps it very well clear of any patronising, English-centric, cheap shots.

One of the worst programmes ever created for television in the UK was called Mind Your Language, based in an English class for foreigners. It was screened in the 1970s and was cliched, xenophobic and really, really unfunny. This book might well have been the programme's 'inspiration' but the difference in quality and humanity is striking.

A lovely book.

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman

I have been a bad, bad reader and given up with this book. I got half way through and then found I was not enjoying it, that I was becoming too conscious of its imperfections. Partly this was to do with it being translated into English from the original Russian. All translations lose something in translation, of course. But this one (Vantage edition) never achieved the necessary cruising altitude of style where you forget it is a translation at all and get carried away with the story and the meaning.

It is apparently based on 'War and Peace', at least in the episodic, multi-stranded story. So there are several parallel plots, all set against the background of the Great Patriotic War and, in particular, the Battle of Stalingrad. This mimicry of Tolstoy also begins to grate, after a while.

But, for all these pompous imaginings, I just got bored. It was hard to recall when I picked up the book which characters I had met before (a common problem in all big epics with casts of thousands) and the plot was too diffuse to keep my interest.

But is it always wrong to give up on a book? I feel guilty about it, naturally, I suppose, for someone who enjoys reading. And if you are reading an acknowledged classic, like this, there is something self improving, one hopes, about sticking with it to the end and sharing in the common cultural experience that has so entranced others. I stuck with Henry James, Moby Dick (a pretty tough and unusual read) and I have read Proust's In Search of Lost Time twice, with nothing but enjoyment both times. So I don't feel incompetent to finish this book. I just was not enjoying it.

I met a very impressive and thoughtful man a few weeks' ago, who told me that his life had changed since he had found he had cancer and was now in remission. He was a very senior EU civil servant, spoke several languages and was clearly an exceptionally erudite man. He said his whole approach to work and life had changed; he had become completely generous in his approach to other people and no longer sought to manage his staff's work, just to encourage them. Anyway, I asked him if it had changed his attitude to reading. He said it had, in that he now read only for pleasure. In his case, this seemed to mean reading philosophy but as we get older, perhaps the pursuit of pleasure is the best motivation for reading. I am afraid this book just wasn't giving me any.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Religion for Athiests by Alain de Botton

I bought this book on a whim, since it seemed to be about something that I trouble to think about quite a lot - the disappearance of religious belief and what, if anything, should replace it. It was a well justified whim; this is a lovely, mellow, intriguing book.

Perhaps best to begin with the author's style. I read his The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work and enjoyed it so much that I sent it to my brother, since it was written with the gentle but telling irony so familiar to him. The format of Pleasures and Sorrows is similar to this book - clever and thoughtful pieces of writing, interleaved with black and white photographs that complement the text and, actually, illustrate its meaning. There must be a name in the publishing world for this sort of book, so different from the 'plates' approach, where pictures are stuck in the middle and need to be referred to by some sort of process that takes you out of the flow of the text. The pictures here are not 'plates', printed on a glossier type of paper, but just photographs or photomontages printed as if it was all part of the same, seamless weave.

But the writing style is also consistent. Deep, observational, factual and, well....philosophical. De Botton is, at least in the UK, seen as that rarity: a thinker or public philosopher. Each short section contains a few sentences of aphoristic prose, some of which really  make you sit up and take notice. For instance:

"In essence, religions understand that to belong to a community is both very desirable and not very easy. In this respect, they are greatly more sophisticated than those secular political theorists who write lyrically about the loss of a sense of community, while refusing to acknowledge the inherently dark aspects of social life."

Or, even better:

"Ultimately, the purpose of all education is to save us time and spare us errors. It is a inculcate in society's members , within a set span of years, what it took the very brightest and most determined of their ancestors centuries of painful and sporadic efforts to work out.

Secular society has proved itself ready enough to accept the logic of this mission in relation to scientific and technical knowledge. It sees nothing to regret in the fact that a university student ....will in a matter of months be able to learn as much as Faraday ever knew and in a couple of years may be pushing at the outer limits of Einstein's unified field theory.

Yet this selfsame principle, which seems at once so obvious and so inoffensive in science, tends to be met with extraordinary opposition when applied to wisdom; to insights related to the self-aware and moral stewardship of the soul."

The style is also humorous and self-deprecating. Diffident and tentative, almost; not didactic or patronising.

He makes some very interesting points about life in modern western society. Some examples:

  • Most people are at best embarrassed and at worst angered by religious exhortations in signs or in leaflets. I know I am. But we are actually bombarded with messages from companies telling us to behave differently, to value ourselves and other things differently, to hold particular attitudes. But we do not object to this at all. Why? 

  • Museums and galleries carry out some of the same roles, in modern secular societies, as churches. They are places for reflection and the contemplation of depths and perspectives outside our daily experience. But they are organised in accordance with academic categories, like 'Early Renaissance" or "Cubism and Dada". Why not arrange objects or artworks in line with the meanings and purposes they share, like 'insights to the self' or 'mankind's place in the cosmos'? Would this not serve these needs for contemplation and perspective more adequately?

  • Religions of all kinds use institutions to promote, reinforce and control their teachings. Yet the secular equivalent, an ethical world view or a philosophy of life, is left to the a cottage industry of individuals. So a Kant or a Neitzsche communicates through a handful of obscure books, read by a few academics. While the Catholic Church deports vast resources over millennia. Could the secular thinkers not do with some institutional support, too?

I was waiting for him to say something, as I neared the end of the book, of the attempt during the French Revolution to create a new religion, called I think the Cult of the Supreme Being. Instead, he writes about the fascinating Auguste Comte, who seems in a number of ways to have been de Botton's intellectual ancestor. He created a secular religion, complete with icons and worship, in the first half of the nineteenth century. He identified secular saints, like Shakespeare and Descartes, who could inspire awe and admiration simply by their talents. According to de Botton, his big mistake was to call it a 'religion', and it never got off the ground. A 'church' was however built in an apartment in Paris some decades later, by a group of enthusiasts and it survives to this day.

So, a nicely written, thoughtful book, enjoyable to read and very thought provoking. Recommended.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

In the popular imagination (well, 'popular' might be overstating the breadth of her appeal) Wharton is associated with novels of early 20th century New York manners and this book is certainly part of that oeuvre. The film of a few years' ago, with Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer in black frock coat and voluminous skirts respectively, probably reinforces the notion that this is a book about the straitjacket of social convention. It is; but it is about many other things too.

I read the Penguin Popular Classics edition, so there were no notes. But, unlike a book by Henry James, who was apparently a bit of a mentor to Wharton, this was not a problem. Her style is deceptively simple and direct. I am sure there were some contemporary references that might have been interesting to know about. But, overall, the book is a straightforward, beautifully written read.

So what is about, apart from the suffocating social mores of a New York trying to be like 'Old Europe' but really being something quite different? Well, in no particular order: the stupidity and narcissism of men; the depths of the human soul that are not divinable even by those closest to us; the emotional self indulgence and sense of entitlement that come with great wealth; and, actually, the positive side of social convention. That is, the framework it gives us to navigate life's greatest trials by pretending we are actually thinking and talking about something quite different. A bit like a poet using the sonnet form, I suppose - the demands of the structure bring out the best in us.

This is not a long book but it is an excellent one and, for this reader anyway, not one that has dated all that much.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Point to Point Navigation by Gore Vidal

I enjoyed the first volume of Vidal's memoirs, Palimpsest. So this was a natural progression. He is funny and acerbic and is, based on both books, one of the best connected and most intellectual people in America.  The text is enhanced by some good photographs of people, which lend credibility to some of his more spectacular name drops. A typical passage would be "I only met Barack Obama once, when he came to seek my advice on public speaking and to consult me on a very obscure aspect of Democratic party politics. He was droll and clearly gifted but an extrapolator, not an interpreter." There is a lot of that sort of thing. He tells how the last time he saw Jackie Kennedy was in a lift in a Paris hotel, when she cut him dead. Perhaps she didn't recognise him - but that would not have been conceivable for Gore Vidal.

The best parts of the book are about his lifetime partner, Howard Auster, and his death. And his enjoyment of life in Italy, at their house in Ravello.

It feels a little bit disjointed, like memories plucked out and recounted if not at random, then with only loose connections. But he is a good companion and has had a fascinating life. I might try one of his novels. He has been a prolific writer of novels, sceeenplays and other works and he has seen a lot of life.

It does not feel like the most consequential of memoirs; but is entertaining.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa

I came to this book because I enjoyed Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter so much. This book is equally good but is completely different. It describes the end of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. I confess I knew nothing of this thoroughly nasty regime, which ended with Trujillo's assassination in 1961 and this episode forms the centrepiece of the narrative in this book. It is beautifully constructed novel, the same events being seen from several different points of view and different points in time. The dictator's death (I am not giving away any plot twists here, since it is a historical fact) occurs at exactly the middle of the novel. So half of it is about the preparations and half about the bloody and terrible aftermath,

There is a carefully developed sense of foreboding that runs throughout the novel and it is resolved at the end. The pieces all fall very nicely into place, from a narrative perspective.

I don't know much at all about Latin America and the Caribbean. I have never been there. So the atmosphere created by the writer, the heat, the edginess, the unpredictability, were enjoyably exotic and, at the same time, very believable.

The book contains a lot of scenes of cruelty and inhumanity and paints a convincing picture of how power corrupts and blurs moral boundaries. The writer is insightful about human nature; one can even feel empathy with the Trujillo he describes, vain and cruel but also suffering from the onset of age and the failing of his faculties, especially those so important to his macho self image.

The best word for this book is gripping. It really grabs you and wraps you up in its unfolding story. Great read.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I enjoyed reading this book more than I enjoyed finishing it. It is a psychological novel, narrated by a man in late middle age reviewing episodes in his life and finally understanding them. It is nice and short and I was reading a fresh, clean hard back which was given to me as a present. So a good reading experience.

It reminded me of some other novels - 'Engleby' by Sebastian Faulkes and 'The Secret History' buy Donna Tartt. The former because we realise as the novel unfolds that the narrator is not quite as unblemished a character as his own account might suggest and the latter because it ascribes highly intellectual insights to people in their late teens.

The tone is beautifully maintained and reinforced by the language. The presentation of the main character rings very true to this middle-aged, British reader, perhaps because the main character is, well, middle-aged and British.

I found the denouement a little unsatisfying - it did not quite live up to the suspense and foreboding that had so brilliantly been created.

But this is a really enjoyable, clever book.

Rabbit at Rest by John Updike (also Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich; and Memories of the Ford Administration, all by John Updike)

Rabbit at Rest is the last of 4 novels about the life and times of Harry Angstrom, an American everyman. They span his adult life. I don't know if Updike decided at the outset to make this a tetralogy but from reading them all, I think not. The last novel, which I have just finished, is as good as the others but is definitely following a well-worn groove. The protagonist, whose stream of consciousness we frequently follow in all of the novels, is a very real character in that he is fundamentally very flawed, with occasional flashes of moral rectitude. Like most people, probably. He is racist, sexist, selfish, unreasonable - but if our private thoughts were made public, as his are through Updike, all of us might look that way.

There are occasional slightly too visible efforts to connect the story to real events, to give a timeline. References to Watergate, Reagan or whatever. But Harry - nicknamed 'Rabbit' as a gifted young basketball player - displays all the prejudices of his origins in rustbelt America. He muses poetically at times and thinks often about God. He is not a shallow character.

Other characters are memorable and, on the whole, pretty convincing. But the best thing about this novel is the way it displays the textures of a life lived. TV, ageing, fast food - these are all nicely and subtly analysed in a way that gives the appearance of reality without descending into preachiness.

There is also a subtext about sin and redemption - the sins of the fathers are seen visited on the children in a cycle that looks likely, pretty much, to go on and on.

All in all, these 4 novels are a pretty amazing piece of writing. Maintaining the same tone and personality over such a long period is truly remarkable. One nagging concern is that they might well be of greater appeal to men than women. The whole perspective is male. There is quite a lot of sex, which Rabbit does not analyse all that much, treating it in a slightly animalistic way - as some men do?

'Memories of the Ford Administration' is tagged on here as it is one of the very few books - 'Ulysses' is the only other one I can think of - that I have tried twice to read and given up on both occasions. It is not a good book, in my view. It has some excellent scenes about the priapic academic who sits at the centre of the story and how he copes with his mid-life crises. But it goes off into long, long digressions by quoting the piece of historical research he is engaged in. I am sure it is a better book than I describe here; but it is long-winded and, frankly, I was not prepared to wait and see what the point of it all was. So not up to Rabbit standards.

But the Rabbit books are excellent.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt

If, like me, you wonder daily why and how it has come to pass that political debate today in most western democracies is devoid of principles, this is the book for you. It is beautifully written and a brilliant, pointed reminder of why ideas matter and why we miss them so much in today's stunted and etiolated political discourse.

Tony Judt died recently and this book feels like a last shower of intellectual fireworks, crafted to be short and digestible but still full of wisdom. Among the several great pleasures of the book are the many pithy and apposite quotations he uses. The book's title comes from Oliver Goldsmith:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

Pretty relevant to where we find ourselves today, huh? But many other wise words from great thinkers, not least among them John Maynard Keynes:

" is not sufficient that the state of affairs we seek to promote should be better than the state of affairs that preceded it; it must be sufficiently better to make up for the evils of transition."

are peppered throughout this brief but sparkling book.

Judt's basic point is that many of the achievements of 20th century social democracy have been squandered in pursuit of a short sighted and narrow minded conception of the human condition, based around the belief that markets are always right and that their very rightness is a kind of natural order. He is surely right that, in the UK at any rate, political debate is based on a shared assumption that economic, usually monetary, measures are the only means by which we can assess the value of what our people and institutions do. How often do we hear anyone ask questions like: is this just? Is this good? Is this the sort of society we want? Not very, is the answer.

He makes the point that no society can be healthy when fear takes control. At the moment, we are clearly at risk of losing all faith in our ability to influence our social and political environment. Globalisation and the inexorable power of financial markets make elected politicians seem irrelevant, reduced to idle commentary on affairs they cannot contain or direct. Judt thinks this situation is recoverable and  his prescription is to change the language of politics. I hope he is right.

But this is a really tasty little book about ideas, written by a top class thinker. Nice one, Tony.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

I came to this book with no preconceptions, apart from glancing at the comments from critics chosen by the publishers for the cover, as it was a present. Overall, I found it slow and a bit superficial.

It is set in World War II London - the Blitz, sweet tea, civilians doing heroic jobs, all that. Nearly all of the characters are gay, in various states of denial about their sexuality. That is probably the main theme of the book, in fact. It is written back to front, in chronological terms. So we start in 1947 and move episodically back to 1941.

The narrative was too slow, in my view. Scenes took a long time to play out and there was much description that felt self indulgent and added little to the atmosphere or our understanding.

The characterisation felt superficial. I wondered, as someone who is not gay, whether I lacked sensitivity in failing to appreciate something but thought of brilliant, brilliant writers like Alan Hollinghurst who also write about gay characters and whose books I have loved. I concluded that the writing is just not that good.

If you had nothing else to read and were on a long train journey, this is a decent enough novel. Truth to tell, I felt with sufficient time and effort I could write it. The artifice is too visible. But we want, don't we, something more from our books? To be captivated by something that carries us away, to feel guided by something better, cleverer or more insightful than ourselves? I am afraid this book never quite achieved that, for me. But it was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Orange prizes so perhaps I missed something.

Friday, 10 February 2012

23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang

The writer is a 'development economist', in the jargon of the economics profession (on which, incidentally, he is very interesting in this book) and he does write from the perspective of the developing economy.Which is no bad thing, when he is so brilliantly and analytically critical of the way in which developed economies have been managed in recent decades.

The format of the book is pretty much as set out in the title - a series of chapters, each addressing an aspect of how capitalism works. His style is light and easy to read, full of the self deprecating humour that seems common to so many great expositors of complex subjects.

His basic argument is that the world economy is far too much influenced by the lazily accepted tenets of free market economics. He adduces plenty of evidence in support of this, showing that the application of this orthodoxy has actually diminished economic growth in those countries that have either embraced it willingly or had it forced upon them by agents of the 'Washington Consensus' such as the IMF.

He convincingly challenges some of the assumptions that underpin our faith in free market economics: that putting the interests of shareholders first leads to sustainable business; that the internet changes everything; that more education leads to economic growth; that governments cannot pick winners.

He also makes the excellent point that free market theories never, in wealthy countries, extend to immigration policy. If you allowed free immigration, lots of brilliant people from poorer countries would come to rich ones and undercut the native labour force, even in highly paid jobs. This would drive down costs and make businesses more competitive on grounds of cost, with no loss of quality. The free market would be working. But immigration control is a form of protectionism that is rarely questioned, even by the most ardent free market advocate. For good policy reasons, sure; but it knocks on the head any idea that policy interference with free markets is inherently bad.

Finally, he points out that the most successful economies in the world are not run by economists. Comfort for all of us who are puzzled by the intellectual deference accorded to the 'dismal science'.

This is a punchy, topical book, written in bite-sized chunks by a top class intellectual. Brilliant.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

This short novel is something of a period piece. Written during the 1930s, it describes the life and loves of an anti hero, Gordon Comstock. The themes are well known from Orwell's other works - poverty, class and alienation. These ideas, deriving from Marxism and the widespread belief that a better system than capitalism was within mankind's grasp, still seem a little dated despite the evident vacuity of today's political offerings. Orwell labours his point about money or, more particularly, the lack of it, and its corrosive effects in a way that echoes Tressell's 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists'. He is however more in tune with today's sensibilities than Tressell in his clear recognition of the gulf between human decency and the implacability of all ideological systems. The anti hero and his only friend in the novel are socialists but only in an abstract sense. They are not able to live their socialism, in the misguided way that Orwell was always so scathing about, to the point that they abjure decent food and a warm fire. As in much of his writing, he points out nicely and neatly the remoteness of ideology from human experience and, in consequence, its dangerous irrelevance to it.

In modern parlance, the anti hero needs to get out more. Actually, when reading it, I felt Orwell was often describing a person with depression. But that is to medicalise, daftly, a situation that he uses to tell us a social fable.

The anti hero's redemption or return to the social currents whence he came is a simple narrative trick that feels a little rushed. But the pleasure of this book lies in Orwell's keen eye for the workings of class and social hierarchy in Britain. I suppose it is a rather British book - the aspidistra, the blameless plant that Orwell uses to symbolise the conformity and suffocating propriety yet deathlessness of lower middle class England, is a common houseplant in Britain - but Orwell writes such beautiful, beautiful prose I recommend it to all lovers of the English language.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

A Bend in the River by V S Naipaul

I came to this book by way of recent reading about the Congo. This book is mainly set there, though the country is never named, either as Congo or Zaire. But 'The Big Man', who exerts a distant and baleful influence on events from 'the Capital', is clearly Mobutu. Even his infamous leopard skin hat and fetish stick are described in some detail. But he is never named.

There are many fine qualities to this book. For this white, western European reader, the perceptions and attitudes of the protagonist, an Arab African, are fascinating and refreshing or slightly disconcerting, depending on the context. The author is West Indian by birth but he came to England to study and that has been a lasting influence on his writing. The sensibility of the colonized is a key theme of this book. It is hard to imagine it being so powerfully delineated by someone who has no lived experience of it.

The language is spare and undemonstrative. This becomes hypnotic for the reader and creates an affinity for the languor and aimlessness of some of the characters. It also lends understatement and enigma to the dramatic events that unfold later in the book.

The book also has much to say about the nature of Africa and Africans but seen from the perspective of the outsider - 'the man apart'. It is quizzical, implying of some inner space impenetrable to those not born there.

There are some recurrent, metaphorical, motifs - the invasive water lilies that arrived with the Europeans but which now damage local food production and the way they float down the river, on and on, endlessly; the optimism of the protagonist's mentor, which survives many vicissitudes, finally coming to rest in London's Gloucester Road; and the lure and repulsiveness of Europe for those over whom its influence is unchosen but irresistible.

I confess I did not enjoy the only other book by this author I have read, 'A House for Mr Biswas'. Maybe I was too young to appreciate it. 'A Bend in the River' is a good book, dealing with serious issues. It is a bit of a slow burn and the denouement is slightly hurried. But for anyone with an interest in how cultures understand and misunderstand each other, it is required reading.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

I wanted to read this book as it is about the Congo, a place I have read about quite a lot. It is a pretty brilliant piece of imaginative writing.

The story is about a family that moves to the Congo in the 1950s. The father is a slightly stereotypical crazy Baptist preacher but the novel is structured around the first person accounts of his daughters and wife. You never hear his voice directly.

The beauty of the book lies in the depth of its description of how families work, especially in times of astonishing stress and difficulty. That is really the writer's greatest achievement, although I see from the introduction that she has never actually visited the Congo and the way she describes it is extremely convincing so I admire immensely her ability to write from her imagination.

It is also a novel about race, culture and feminism. As I read the novel, my faith in the characterisation of  the narrators occasionally wavered but by the end I was completely convinced. The psychological depth of the characters is rich and believable.

You could ask whether the father figure is really no more than a cypher, a means by which the narrating characters are brought together. His irrationality and inhumanity in the name of religion are a little bit caricature. But aren't some families like that? You could also ask whether some of the events are wholly plausible  - the invasion of the driver ants, for example. But people do live dramatic lives and this charts beautifully the course of such a life for a group of disparate personalities bound together simply by blood and experience.

The novel's deep description and analysis of relationships made me wonder whether my own life is somehow superficial. Even if I could write, I can't imagine picking over the details and motivations of my own family in anything like the same detail. Which in turn made me wonder whether the writer is describing something true and real about human experience or something that is essentially an artifice, a clever and brilliant representation of something actually beyond our capacity to codify in our own lives.

But apart from that solipsistic interlude, I enjoyed this book a lot and it reminded me, again, of just what an extraordinary and extraordinarily troubled place the Congo is.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

We Had It So Good by Linda Grant

This is an enjoyable novel which raises some big themes but then rather leaves them sitting there, perhaps for the reader to take away and think about (a generous interpretation) or just because the author over reached herself.

The big themes are the misplaced optimism of the 1960s; the enduring influence of parents on children; and the self doubt of people reaching maturity in the early 21st century. When I say 'people', I mean middle class Oxford graduates, about whom this novel is predominantly written.

I actually read it on the recommendation of a friend. We were talking about music and he expressed the view that there is only good music and bad music and the 30 or so years after 1955 had been a golden age. He disagreed with those who thought pop music was just an ephemeral reflection of the times. He believed in its aesthetic value and that it could be differentiated accordingly. I mentioned something my most beloved school teacher had said. He was a product of the sixties and when he said this, in the late seventies, it was prescient. He said that he and his generation should feel a lot of guilt for what they had done with drugs. He died very young, of lung cancer. But I still think of him often.

This is a small aspect of the novel but the larger idea, that the generations that followed the war have all been looking for a defining purpose equal to that which fell to their parents, is central.

There are some quibbles - would someone arriving in LA after driving all the way across America really be  all that amazed by a barbecue? Are some of the characters a bit two dimensional?

But it is an engrossing read, well paced, with some interesting ideas behind the story.

Seven Thousand Days in Siberia by Karlo Stajner

First, an admission - I did not read all of this book. But it is important and compelling and a reminder of how things can be for other people in other lives. Like taking a cold shower - you enjoy a hot one so much more once you know that things, always, can be otherwise.

It is as dispassionate account as one can imagine of one person's experiences of the Stalin-era death camps. As Stajner (Steiner, in the Austrian version of his name) himself says, he did not want to write about feelings and motivations, just about what happened. He was freed in 1956 after Kruschev met Tito and the Marshal asked about a list of missing Yugoslav officials, who had disappeared into the Soviet Union of the 30s and 40s. Kruschev came back 2 days later with an answer - of the 113 on the list, 13 survived, all as prisoners in Siberia. They were then released, Stajner among them. He had been arrested in 1936.

Stajner's account is incredibly thorough and detailed. But it is, because of that, repetitive and the reader's sensitivities become blunted. Its real value is as an authentic record, rather than a narrative masterpiece. He also recounts the stories of the other prisoners he lived with. Many of these are fascinating and you marvel at the appalling waste of humanity sitting in all prisons, everywhere.

This all happened, in Europe, while my parents were alive. Reading of the blank inhumanity and bureaucratic oppression, it makes you wonder where else today such things could happen. Sadly, the list of even the most obvious is not a short one: North Korea, China, several Middle Eastern states, Afghanistan, several African countries, Burma. In all of them, like the Soviet Union, you could be arrested for some transgression, political, religious or social, and taken away from your friends, family and life.

Sure, the Soviet death camps were on a different scale. But that possibility, of the knock at the door and the  unyielding force of the state suddenly and inexplicably destroying your life, is present in too many places.

I would not recommend this book to everyone. But even if you only do as I did, and skim a bit, it is sobering, disconcerting and troubling.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

How to follow 'The Corrections'? That question must have been a tough one, since 'The Corrections' sticks in my mind as a book that really lived up to all the hype and was utterly brilliant as a novel. 'Freedom' is not totally different, in fact. It is all about families, relationships and what it is like to be human in a certain sort of America. But it is also pretty brilliant.

There are endless reviews around so I won't add to them, except to mention two things I especially enjoyed. The first is the writer's insight into how different generations relate to one another. He is very good at looking at things from varying perspectives and living and breathing the preconceptions that come with age, as well as with social background.

The second is the way in which one individual's integrity acts as a pole around which the actions of others circulate. The fact that this integrity is maintained, without ever becoming too improbable, is really masterful.

It is also nice the way the freedom motif increases in prominence as the book progresses.

My only complaint is that it is a bit long - could have done with a bit more editing.

But a deep and enjoyable read.