Showing posts with label Book reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Book reviews. Show all posts

Saturday, 3 December 2022

Mis-sold by the marketers

Queenie In 2019 there was a lot of buzz around Candice Carty-Williams's debut novel Queenie. The marketing bods, of which Carty-Williams is one herself, did a sterling job. I was sold on the idea of a "smart and breezy comic debut", "astutely political, an essential commentary on everyday racism" in Black British life.

It starts when Queenie's boyfriend of three years, Tom, has just told her he wants a break. She interprets this to mean and then we'll get back together. However what he really means is that he wants to break up permanently.

So far so mid-twenties problems. I had to work hard to remember what life was like when I was 25, Queenie's age. I mean, the older you get, the easier it is to put life's problems into perspective. So yes, I admit that I rolled my eyes at the young woman's inability to accept her relationship was over, and tutted at the young man's weakness.

Pretty soon tho' it's obvious that for Queenie the episode is a catalyst for finally facing the demons she has kept locked up since childhood. Her life spirals out of control.

This isn't a "comic" situation. Even Kyazike, "pronounced 'chess-keh'", my favourite character, cannot lift the utter awfulness of what Queenie goes through. Her self-destructive behaviour is shocking, but even more difficult to read are the experiences that have led her to where she is. The last quarter of the book is filled with anguish.

What none of the blurb says is that this book is about abusive relationships and mental health problems, neither of which I would call "breezy". Don't get me wrong, it's a great book and the story needs telling, but if you're in a fragile mental state yourself go for Three Men in a Boat or The Uncommon Reader, or Good Behaviour. You won't get any references to casual racism, but at least they'll make you laugh and not cry.

Friday, 2 December 2022

I'm rich. Who the hell wants to be happy?

The Long Goodbye (Philip Marlowe, #6) I once knew a man who was an alcoholic. He was intellectually brilliant, literally a rocket scientist. When sober and not hungover he was charming, but under the influence of booze he became nasty, unreasonable and incapable of work. Why do I mention this? Well, I've just finished reading Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye in which there are at least three alcoholic characters.

Drinking and drunkenness pervade the book. Right at the beginning, Philip Marlowe meets Terry Lennox when the latter is "drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith." Lennox is an ex-soldier, the unhappy husband of a wealthy wife; "I’m rich. Who the hell wants to be happy?". The two men strike up a friendship over the next few months, drinking gimlets in a local bar until one night Lennox needs to leave town.

Later in the story Marlowe helps a writer named Roger Wade, another unhappy husband, this one struggling to finish his latest book. When he's drunk he's "‘Horrible. Bright and hard and cruel. He thinks he is being witty when he is only being nasty." Wade suffers black-outs, or he's off with the fairies on addictive medication.

The third alcoholic is of course Marlowe himself. Much like Lennox and Wade, he has become a man who doesn't seem to care about anything and has nothing to live for.

The Long Goodbye, then, is dark, filled with fatalism, addiction and corruption. There's plenty of shocking violence too, often perpetrated by the cops who are bullish and corrupt. The wealthy people who aren't addicts are bored and engaged in extramarital sex with their "Idle Valley" neighbours. None of them are likeable.

In spite of this I enjoyed it. It's narrated by Marlowe himself in the same fast style as The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely. According to the book's Wikipedia page, Chandler himself reckoned it "my best book", and of the ones I've read, I reluctantly agree. The Big Sleep is fine as an introduction to the hard-bitten Marlowe, and The Long Goodbye shares with the first in the series the characters of a powerful father and wayward daughters. Farewell My Lovely is full of fantastic descriptions and is more lighthearted. They both reflect Chandler's excellent education. In the later book there's a nod to the detective's Elizabethan namesake Christopher Marlowe, a jibe referencing Gustave Flaubert "that makes you an intellectual, a critic, a savant of the literary world", and criticism of Khachaturian's violin concerto like "working in a tractor factory... a loose fan belt." The Long Goodbye has serious themes and fewer wonderful descriptions, although they do still shine through; "The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back."

At the end I wanted some sort of redemption, but how could there be? Like "Scott Fitzgerald... the best drunken writer since Coleridge, who took dope", there was only the recognition that Chandler, himself an alcoholic, had somehow written a masterpiece.

Sunday, 20 November 2022

A load of old nonsense

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland "Why are you reading a children's story, Cabbie?" Well, I'll tell you. I've found yet another unopened book on my shelf, bought over 20 years ago in an airport shop; Jeff Noonan's Automated Alice. The Wikipedia page says it "tells of the character of Alice from Lewis Carroll's books in a future version of Manchester, England". I've never read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, so research is my motive.

There can't be many who don't know the story. Disney's 1951 movie Alice in Wonderland introduced it to a wide audience, but I've never seen that either. If you're as ignorant as me then, here's a brief outline.

Saturday, 19 November 2022

Waiting, interminably waiting, and then...

The Tartar Steppe Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe is one of those books where it pays to read something about it before you start. It's the sort of book they study in literature courses, the sort of book that you have to work at.

Fortunately the edition I have contains an introduction written by Tim Parks, but you could also check out the Wikipedia page before you buy. Buzzati originally titled it The Fortress, which is a better title. Most of us can visualise a fortress in reality as well as metaphorically, whereas The Tartar Steppe invokes a sauce I like to eat with fried fish. When the introduction tells you, "for an Italian, the northern mountains are the locus par excellence of military glory" it gives the title some meaning.

Friday, 4 November 2022

Developing your sixth sense

Wild Signs and Star Paths: The Keys to Our Lost Sixth Sense In 2018 Stuart Heritage wrote a review for the Guardian of Tristan Gooley's Wild Signs And Star Paths and I immediately added the book to my "to be read" list. This year I finally got round to it.

Gooley explains what he's going to do in his Introduction: "I will show you how to sense direction from stars and plants, forecast weather from woodland sounds, and predict the next action of an animal from its body language–instantly."

Thursday, 27 October 2022

Abominable addiction

Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman I'm always on the lookout for fiction that's set on the French Riviera and came across a reference to Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman in a local newspaper. The article said it's a story about loose women and gambling, and best of all, some of the scenes take place in Monte Carlo Casino. What's not to like?

Wednesday, 26 October 2022

A joke of the first water

The A.B.C. Murders (Hercule Poirot #13) Sometimes you just want to read a page-turner, and you can't beat Agatha Christie for that. I've been working through John Curran's 2009 list of the best 10 Christie mysteries, and have reached number four: The ABC Murders.

One of the pleasures in reading Agatha Christie is that of getting reacquainted with old friends. In this case it's Hercule Poirot, the indomitable Belgian detective, installed "in one of the newest type of service flats in London" and exercising his "little grey cells" in investigating "only the cream of crime."

Wednesday, 19 October 2022

Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren't

Flaubert's Parrot Three books have coloured my view of French literature, all set texts for study. They each feature a miserable woman, living a depressing life and turning to adultery as an escape: Marguerite Duras's Moderato Cantabile and its metaphorical magnolia flowers is a book I never, ever want to read again; Emile Zola's seedy Thérèse Raquin, saved only by its Parisian setting; and worst of all, Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary and its intensely annoying eponymous protagonist.

Monday, 10 October 2022

Not my idea of fun

My idea of fun Will Self's My Idea of Fun had been sitting on my shelf for about 20 years. I'd started it, didn't warm to the first few pages, so set it aside for another few years and tried again.

Reader, I finished it, but it wasn't my idea of fun.

Saturday, 8 October 2022

A remarkable escape from slavery

Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom: Or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery I was surprised to discover within one branch of my family's history, a chemist-druggist who travelled to America in 1862, leaving his wife behind, to join the Unionists of the American Civil War. He remained in the USA after the war ended and became a naturalised citizen. What on earth drove him to do that? Here's an hypothesis: perhaps he'd come across Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, the remarkable story of how two slaves escaped their bondage and gained their freedom.

Monday, 26 September 2022

Vimto, Gonks, and Wayfinders. I remember them

Mean Time I opened Mean Time, Carol Ann Duffy's 1993 collection of poetry, and poured myself a glass of wine. My cheeks started to glow, my head became lighter, my shoulders dropped, and everything in the world was fine. I began to feel sentimental at the thought of happy times past. Was it the wine or the poetry?

Nostalgia suffuses Mean Time, especially the first poem in the collection, The Captain of the 1964 Top of the Form Team. It speaks directly to baby boomers, those who were at school in the 60s and 70s. The references tap on your heart with a hoppety beat; pop music, general knowledge, Vimto, Gonks, and Tuf Wayfinders shoes. What a great start to a great collection.

Friday, 23 September 2022

Definitely, absolutely and without a doubt, 'my sort of book'

Small Things Like These Some of the books I read for Book Club are really not my sort of thing. I like to think I read them with good grace, and I really do try to find the best in them whilst admitting that I'm not the target readership for that sort of thing. Well, Claire Keegan's Small Things Like These is definitely, absolutely and without a doubt, my sort of book.

Wednesday, 21 September 2022

A historic record of xenophobia

Heart of Darkness I was drawn to Heart of Darkness by the praise of a few academic fans. The book often appears in the English literary canon and I can see why it continues to be set reading for literature courses; it doubtless provokes much discussion.

The story concerns Charles Marlow, who relates his experiences in the African Congo, where imperialist traders sent "manufactured goods, rubbishy cottons, beads, and brass-wire... into the depths of darkness, and in return came a precious trickle of ivory". The depths of darkness relate not only to the unknown, unexplored lands beyond the sea shore, but also to the inhumanity that late 19th century traders expected to find there, as well as that of the traders themselves.

As Marlow journeys upriver he hears of a Mr Kurtz, a trader who is both respected and despised, and about whom he says, "All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz". In order to reach this enigmatic man, Marlow suffers much misfortune, adventure and horror. For all the vivid descriptions of the journey, the most memorable scene takes place in England, near the end of the book, when Marlow visits Kurtz's fiancee.

Modern-day readers might find Conrad's language in relation to indigenous people shocking and problematic. The book plays on a stereotypical view of foreign cultures and races as primitive and barbaric, and while the author portrays white traders as savages too, they don't quite balance out. It stands as a historic record of the xenophobia that existed at the time of its writing.

The text is dense, and the language lush. Amazingly, Conrad was not a natural-born English speaker, and I dare say this is another reason his work continues to be read and analysed. TS Eliot was inspired by Heart of Darkness, and Francis Ford Coppola adapted it for his film Apocalypse Now. For myself, I was left with only my own thoughts and a few online critical reviews with which to compare them.

Thursday, 8 September 2022

A book that starts with the ending

A House For Mr Biswas It's not often I read a book that starts at the end, tells the story, and then ends at the beginning, but this is exactly what VS Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas does. The opening reads, "Ten weeks before he died, Mr Mohun Biswas, a journalist of Sikkim Street, St James, Port of Spain, was sacked. He had been ill for some time". No need to worry about revealing any spoilers then.

Tuesday, 26 July 2022

Nostalgic notes from a small island

Notes from a Small Island I first read Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island when it was published back in 1995, and then a few years ago I picked it up again to see if it had anything to say about the Bournemouth area. It did (Chapters 6 and 8) because that's where Bryson first worked as a journalist in the UK. I can't say I found any useful insights for my holiday, but chuckled reading that the British "are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake". Well, I can't argue with that knowing my own fondness for an Eccles cake. So when I returned home I decided to give the book another go.

The main thing to note is that Bill Bryson has not written a travel guide. Sure, it describes a journey around Britain, but the chapters are numbered rather than identified by a destination, and there's no index. It's a memoir, and the places he visits mostly recall episodes in his life. For instance his first encounter with England in Dover, or when he met his wife in Virginia Water, or his first real job in Britain at the Bournemouth Evening Echo and his work at The Times newspaper in 1980s London during the "Wapping dispute".

It is funny tho'. I laughed out loud several times, really laughed. For instance when he gets drunk in Liverpool and when he can't understand the Glaswegian accent. I was thrilled to find he enjoyed the old Coronation Street Tour as much as I did, and nodded in agreement with his description of the rail journey along the North Wales coast. The humour is terribly British and may not be understood by all, nor be to everyone's taste.

If the humour's not your thing, a large amount of pleasure can be had in recognising destinations. Bryson's purpose is not to persuade you to discover new places, and although some towns sound horrible (Milton Keynes), the people are generally welcoming. Although I read somewhere that someone is attempting to recreate the tour and visit as many of the hotels, restaurants and pubs mentioned in the book that still exist.

Some things haven't changed. People still say you're brave if you're "planning to travel around Britain by public transport", and that "everyone, but everyone, you talk to in Oxford thinks that it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world". Also that "a place as prosperous and decorous as Harrogate could inhabit the same zone of the country as Bradford or Bolton". I can't speak for Bradford, but it's certainly true about the once great Lancashire town, tho' you wouldn't think so if you'd seen Bolton's eponymous fee-paying school in Cold Feet, and the town centre's Le Mans Crescent in Peaky Blinders.

Things have changed a lot in the past 25 years and I'm not sure it still reflects Britain and the British. Bryson mentions his "greatest admiration for the A-Z" but who uses that anymore in the age of mobile phones and Google maps? On the underground I was recently disabused of the "orderly quiet; all these thousands of people passing on stairs and escalators", after being elbowed out of the way and told to f*ck off at London Bridge tube station. One thing Bryson would perhaps consider a change for the better tho' is that these days the BBC is no longer showing repeats of Cagney and Lacey.

More stuff

Tuesday, 7 June 2022

Not a woman who bears grudges?

The Cactus I didn't have high expectations for Sarah Haywood's The Cactus. Goodreads places it in the Chick Lit category, and it's been described as endearing, heartfelt and charming. Reese Witherspoon chose it for her book club, and like 'Where the Crawdads Sing', which was one of my most disliked books of the past couple of years, intends to adapt it for the screen.

The story is narrated by its protagonist, Susan Green, who in the first sentence of the book describes herself as "not a woman who bears grudges, broods over disagreements or questions other people’s motives", which implies that she most certainly will do all of those things in the following pages.

Monday, 16 May 2022

What makes states: walls and writing

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States An acquaintance suggested James C. Scott's Against the Grain might be of interest. We'd been discussing the benefits of small, local forms of self-government versus the large state. I'd recommended Paint Your Town Red, and she countered with Against the Grain.

The author is an American political scientist and his book investigates the formation of the earliest states.

Thursday, 12 May 2022

A fine book let down by poor digitisation

Brown Girl, Brownstones Brown Girl, Brownstones is Paule Marshall's debut novel, published in 1959. It's the coming-of-age story of Selina Boyce, who when the story starts in 1939 is "a ten-year-old girl with scuffed legs and a body as straggly as the clothes she wore". She lives in Brooklyn with her family, older sister Ina, and parents Silla and Deighton, who are West Indian immigrants. They inhabit a 'brownstone' house, which the mother hopes one day to buy. Deighton meanwhile studies accountancy, hoping that when "I finish I can qualify for a job making good money".

Sunday, 8 May 2022

She was only Anne

Persuasion I was heading for Bath and read that Jane Austen's posthumously published Persuasion is set there. Ideal reading for my visit, I thought.

The first few chapters set the scene. Anne Elliot, unmarried middle-daughter of Sir Walter of Kellynch Hall, still pines for her first love, Frederick Wentworth.

Thursday, 5 May 2022

"Lies, lies, adults forbid them and yet they tell so many."

The Lying Life of Adults Who would want to be a teenager again? Not me. Nor, I imagine, the fictional narrator of Elena Ferrante's The Lying Life of Adults.

The book begins with Giovanna Trada remembering an incident when she was 12 years old: "my father said to my mother that I was very ugly". He goes further, explaining, "Adolescence has nothing to do with it: she's getting the face of Vittoria" his sister, whom Giovanna has never met. Piqued by a further description that in her aunt "ugliness and spite were combined to perfection", the young girl contrives to meet this woman to whom she bears a resemblance. As a consequence Giovanna discovers the working-class roots of her academic father, and learns that what adults say is not necessarily true.

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