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.