Saturday, 11 May 2013

Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh

Bit of an odd one, this. One of Waugh's relatively early novels, you can see the similarities with the excellent Scoop. To the reader today, however, the racism jars. And of course one hopes it is ironic and that the writer is mocking it but, actually, he isn't, I am afraid. There are many things he is mocking and he does so brilliantly, especially the insouciant complacency of the British upper class. But imperial prejudice against other races is not his target, sadly.

The story is essentially about a rich and idle young man who is looking for some purpose in life and ends up on a whim going to a small African country, called Azania, because someone he knew slightly at Oxford - a caricature of the African coming to the centre of civilisation and returning home with patronisingly comical ideas about bringing it to his homeland - has become ruler there.

There are some funny bits, when he is talking about the stupidity and empty-headedness of the expats. But lots of bits that might have been funny at one time but now seem offensively racist. The 'darkies' (his word, not as far as I can tell used with irony) and the stereotypically devious Arabs in the book are two dimensional and, I suppose, fitted with the prejudices of the 1930s. But I expected more from Waugh and was disappointed.

Maybe it has just not aged well. The style is still lovely and smooth but, all in all, I wouldn't recommend this slight novel.

Friday, 26 April 2013

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

I read this, to tell the truth, because I want to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and, while I know the two books stand separately as well as they do together, I am a bit of a stickler from following the author's intended sequence of series, trilogies or whatever. This sometimes leads me to postpone the final ascent of the summit seen from afar, while working my way through the foothills, but I didn't feel any such deflating feelings with Tom Sawyer.

I am not sure that I have read anything by Twain before. I like to think I would have remembered, as he is a very, very lovely writer. The story of Tom Sawyer is well known, or in my case bits of it are well known, and it was a real pleasure to see the whole thing turned out for delectation and admiration.

I seem to be lapsing into a slightly Twainian style. I shall desist forthwith.

The way in which Twain makes passing sardonic commentary on the mores of society at the time of writing is  both funny and thought-provoking. Once or twice, I laughed out loud. The comical belief of the boys in the powers of incantations and words over the evidence of experience must be a dig at religion. And the story itself is sweet, well-timed and finally satisfying. A masterpiece, really. "O lordy, I'm thankful."

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

What's it like to live in a place where freedom of thought is, genuinely, ruthlessly and persistently, suppressed? What is it like to be clever, thoughtful and energetic but to be forced to keep these qualities hidden and in check? What is it like to be governed, severely and unforgivingly, by laws and customs based not on reason but on a codified belief in the supernatural that, by definition, is not susceptible to analysis or debate on the basis of reason?  Or, worse, distorts the logic of reason by imposing a frame of reference and a set of premises that are simply beyond question or analysis except in the terms they presuppose.

Answers to these questions can be found by examining the experience of Iran after the 1979 revolution and reading this book is a very good way of doing so.

Azar Nafisi is an academic and a profound lover of literature. This book looks at her experiences and those of her students through the prism of literature. She weaves a commentary on some great works of English literature - the Great Gatsby, Lolita, Pride and Prejudice - into her story of a reading group of her students and how they dealt, individually and collectively, with the madness and oppression of extreme theocracy.

It shares with the works of Orwell, Kundera, Fallada and Zweig an account of how ideology, if sufficiently absolutist, self-deluding and self-righteous can deaden intellectual life and make a lot of lives very miserable indeed.

But it is written with such spirit and confidence that one leaves the book feeling not exactly happy but at least that not all is lost, despite the efforts of the true believers.

Surely we all need to be very alert to the rise of certainty and unquestioned orthodoxy in public life, whether that is a sudden irruption as happened in Iran in 1979 or a gradual process, like the faith in free market theory that crept upon the western world in the 1990s/2000s.

Stand up for scepticism and free thinking, even if you think you know 'the truth'!

How to be a woman by Caitlin Moran

Caitlin Moran is a British journalist who writes for The Times newspaper. This book is more than just a collection of her articles (she has published another book which is exactly that) as it does stick to its theme of  post-feminism feminism. It is, in my opinion which I know from speaking to others is not shared by all, hilarious. It is scabrous, occasionally disgusting and full of cultural in-jokes for people who have grown up in Britain over the last 40 years or so. But it also tackles some serious issues about how women are objectified, the whole ladette/pornstar/'we are empowered by showing we aren't disempowered by conforming of our own free will in an ironic way to ideals of personal appearance created by male dominated culture' kind of thing.

Actually, that last sentence was a reasonable imitation of Moran's style, though nothing like as funny. Lots of elliptical phrases that convey meaning for those already in the know.

The book ended at the right time, however. Her style is high-powered and intense, so after a while it can get a bit much. But it is bloody hilarious.

Friday, 5 April 2013

I know why the caged bird sings by Maya Angelou

I was given the collected memoirs of Maya Angelou and this is the first I have read and, as one might expect, the first in the series.

It describes her early life, growing up in the Deep South of the US before moving when a teenager to the West Coast.

It is lyrical, often poetic in style. Striking and unusual images enhance the language, even though the action sometimes plods along a bit. Most interesting for me were the descriptions of racially based discrimination and social division.

I enjoyed reading this but, to be honest, will not rush to the next instalment, though I will come back to her.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope

The second in the series of political novels by Trollope, about the eponymous hero who enters Parliament as an Irish MP. Indeed, the subtitle is 'The Irish Member'.

I really enjoyed it, though it does get a bit soap opera-ish with numerous love affairs to enjoy in parallel with description and exploration of the political issues of the nineteenth century. Finn's success in London society and the compromises he has to make in order to sustain it are as relevant today as they were when Trollope wrote them.

He keeps up a fast pace in terms of narrative. In its way, a bit of a potboiler. Entertaining and diverting.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

The sequel to 'Wolf Hall' and a bit of a publishing sensation in the UK in last couple of years. All things Tudor have become of much wider interest as a result.

It is a little less good than Wolf Hall because, perhaps, the novelty of feeling so close to the mind of Thomas Cromwell has worn off. There is also a lot more court politics to cram in and, because you know what is going to happen (Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII's second wife, is going to get her head chopped off), there is a feeling that certain scenes have to be got out of the way in order to meet the narrative zenith, if that is what it should be called.

But that is a cavil, really. The characters are vivid and the technicalities of getting stuff done in that era are very well described. And Cromwell has become a brilliant character in his own right. A film must be in train somewhere - who will play Cromwell?

Thursday, 14 February 2013

What Money Can't Buy - the moral limits of markets by Michael Sandel

I was given this book after hearing Professor Sandel doing a series on BBC Radio where he led philosophical discussions on morally difficult issues. He does the same thing in this book.

It is a good read and his argument is made clearly and crisply. Perhaps there are a few too many examples to support the same point. For example, he cites the actions of baseball clubs, healthcare providers and a few others to illustrate how the commercialisation of any good changes the way it is perceived and valued.

He is of course right that markets have become the default method for organising the supply and demand of all goods, including public goods. Market theory goes largely unchallenged. But when a good is priced and then distributed according to ability to pay, the way people value it changes. Altruism and public spiritedness (how old fashioned those concepts sound in the marketised world we live in) are pushed aside.

He also emphasises how the selling for money of some things, like names of stadiums or railway stations, or advertising space on police cars, demeans the very thing that  makes it valuable in the first place. He argues that there is no 'right' answer to all this, only that we think about each case before rushing to sell public goods to the highest financial bidder.

He or a clone of him should sit on every public authority and government board.

Maigret and the Burglar's Wife by Georges Simenon

My second Maigret novel. I have never easily been able to read books purely for diversion. I have always felt a certain requirement, even a duty, to read books somehow improving and of literary quality. Simenon is a fine writer, so no worries on that score with this book or, I suspect, other Maigret novels. But they are short detective novels, following a form.

In this one, Maigret is told of a body in odd circumstances and he pursues the lead, despite the absence of a body, to catch a murderer.

I like the evocation of 1950s France and the characters are believable if only sketched. Diverting, which is what you want for something to read on a train or a plane,

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Quite a long book, this one. A bit slow at times but ultimately satisfying. A large part of the book is about various alternative realities and how people pass between them. It is not always clear that what is being narrated is supposed actually to be happening. But that doesn't matter, since the story is seen very much through the single consciousness of the protagonist, Toru Okada.

I really liked the evocation of Japan that comes with the book. I was lucky enough to live there for a couple of years so perhaps it resonated more with me than it would with someone who had never been there.

The translation is excellent and very consistent, though I can't say how faithfully the style of the author has been transmitted. In this English version, however, it is understated and humble, making some of the dramatic events described all the more shocking.

A hypnotic, slow-burning read.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

A short story, more than a novel. A novella, I suppose. Much is inferred and hinted at, though the story is quite simple: rich, successful and cultured man called Gustav von Aschenbach goes to Venice during the Belle Epoque on a bit of a whim and fancies the pants off a young adolescent boy. The ending is in the title, of course.

It quite brilliantly creates a mood of decay and decadence, without ever expressing it or describing it directly. A book to read slowly and savour.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I was given this book by my wife, who loved it. I loved it too. It is quite captivating, in a way that few historical novels have been, in my reading experience. The characters are brilliantly drawn and the evocation of the period - England in the reign of Henry VIII - is enough in itself to make the book enjoyable.

I also found it threw new and human light on the Reformation and how people were motivated by genuine belief. It also reminded me that speaking several languages was perfectly normal for highly educated people at that time. England became monoglot only in recent times.

A great book.

Hitch 22 by Christopher Hitchens

This is Hitchens's memoir and, like other books of his that I have read, it is very well written. His style is just intricate enough to keep you interested in the flow of the language, without being so difficult that you have to keep re-reading.

It is very much a reflection of the times of his life and his references seem very familiar to people of, well, about my age. Quotes from The Waste Land, ruminations on the enduring impact of the Second World War on the British psyche, stories of political commitment to left wing causes and rethinking them in middle age.

But he is intellectually rigorous and he has integrity. He is occasionally prolix in this book and it could probably have done with some more editing. I enjoyed reading it but sometimes I had to swallow hard before picking it up.