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.