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

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.

Friday, 22 April 2022

The legacy of apartheid

The Good Doctor Damon Galgut won the 2021 Booker Prize for The Promise, but at book club we decided first to read his 2003 shortlisted The Good Doctor.

The story is told by Frank, a middle-aged, listless doctor who "had swallowed a lot of frustration over the years" and works in a hospital where there are few, if any, patients. It's set in a Homeland region of South Africa, described by Galgut in the Author's Note as "impoverished and underdeveloped [...] set aside by the apartheid government for the 'self-determination' of its various black 'nations'".

Sunday, 17 April 2022

Nice use of the subjunctive mood

Farewell, My Lovely (Philip Marlowe, #2) On a warm day at the end of March, LA private detective Philip Marlowe is idly looking at a neon sign for "a dime and dice emporium called Florian's". Another man, who "looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food" looks at the sign too, then enters the building. It wasn't any of Marlowe's business, but he pushed open the doors and looked in too.

So starts Raymond Chandler's second Marlowe novel, Farewell, My Lovely.

Tuesday, 29 March 2022

Ghosts of loss, death, injury and trauma

The Greatcoat Helen Dunmore has been described as "first and last, a poet", but I discovered her through her ghost story, The Greatcoat. Set a few years after World War II, it is unnerving and nightmarish.

Friday, 4 March 2022

This was not the face in the doorway

The Fortune Men Nadifa Mohamed's The Fortune Men was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and praised as an excellent example of historical fiction that explores present day issues, in this case, racism and injustice. But it's more than fiction. The characters are real people whose voices have never been heard, and the story is taken from a real life incident that happened 70 years ago.

Monday, 28 February 2022

A teenage boy with raging hormones

The Rachel Papers Charles Highway is a "chinless elitist and bratty whey-faced lordling". He's the protagonist of Martin Amis's The Rachel Papers. His saving grace is that he's young, nineteen going on twenty, and if you can remember how awful you were at his age, you'll be able to laugh at the "devious, calculating, self-obsessed" little twit.

Thursday, 24 February 2022

Antigone, Iphis, Electra and more

Antigone Rising: The Subversive Power of the Ancient Myths It was eighteen months after reading a review of Antigone Rising before I bought it. I'd forgotten what had drawn my attention to the book and assumed it was just a general interest in the Greek myths or perhaps a recent book club choice, Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie's modern retelling of Antigone. So it was something of a surprise, a pleasant one, to find it was actually about how those myths are being appropriated by feminists and non-binary people in the 21st century.

Friday, 11 February 2022

Living through a period when politicians don’t merely lie

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia When Boris Yeltsin became President of the new Russia, I was working for a bunch of London-based management consultants who were looking for opportunities to provide advice to the new Russian entrepreneurs. Our strategy was to employ two young Russians. The man introduced himself. He took my hand, bowed slightly, and I swear I heard his heels click. As for the young woman, she was terrified of flying, something of a disadvantage for a jet-setting consultant. Throughout a flight she would grip the arm rests but as soon as the Captain announced our descent she reluctantly let go and fished in her handbag for lipstick and mirror. No matter how terrible the situation, she told me, no Russian woman would ever allow herself to be seen without make up.

Other than a handful of students, that's been the limit of my personal knowledge of Russians.

Monday, 7 February 2022

A cock that could drill a hole through stone?

Beautiful Antonio: Il bell'Antonio Beautiful Antonio ticked a lot of my boxes. It's set between WW1 and WW2, with themes including fascism, hypocrisy, and gender inequality. Unfortunately I wasn't able to give the book my full attention, and read large chunks without digesting them. So it's a good job Tim Parks, the British novelist and translator of Italian works, had written a helpful introduction.

The story is set in Italy, the Sicilian town of Catania to be precise, and concerns a sensitive young man named Antonio, reckoned by family, friends, and random women to be the epitome of an "Italian stallion". All is not as it seems tho'.

Monday, 17 January 2022

My lack of imagination?

Harmless Like You This is a review of the first 13% of Harmless Like You. Perhaps it's a good story. It was in a list of books I'd found on the theme of family relationships. It was shortlisted for a few awards too. The two main characters are Yuki and her son Jay, whom she abandoned when he was 2 years old. I found it mostly unreadable.

Saturday, 8 January 2022

Do I like this?

Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery Art Objects is a book for readers who relish language, its rhythm and its sounds. In other words, the art of the written word. In it Jeanette Winterson explores the idea of literature as art in a series of essays, using examples of the literature which she admires: the modernists, especially Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein.

I did wonder if I'd get much out of the book, since the only reading I have in common with Winterson is Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Winterson's own books, and Shakespeare. But I didn't let it put me off, and neither should you. This is a book that oozes love of literature.

Thursday, 6 January 2022

The worst of times

Autumn In simple terms, Autumn is about the relationship that develops between a 9-year-old girl called Elisabeth, and her elderly next door neighbour, Daniel Gluck. There's a lot more to it than that tho'.

It's a book firmly set in its time, that of the UK post-Brexit. Lack of funds for community services have led to libraries being closed, the way the Brexit referendum was framed has led to thoughtless tribalism, and the idea of protecting the land from invasion by foreigners is rife.

Friday, 31 December 2021

The world itself is the bad dream

The Bell Jar I was taking a chance with The Bell Jar. A fictionalised autobiography about a young woman attempting suicide is unlikely to raise the spirits when you're living through the Covid pandemic. But there were headlines in the media about how lockdowns and isolation were affecting people's mental health so it seemed like something I should read. Besides, it's generally considered a classic.

Monday, 20 December 2021

A child's Christmas in...

A Child's Christmas in Wales Adults always claim that Christmas is for the children. Who are they trying to kid? Whatever your age, 25 December provides an excuse to stuff yourself with sweeties and play silly games.

If you want something to get you in the mood for a merry Christmas, you could do no better than to pick up a copy of Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales. It's so short you can read it in less than an hour.

Saturday, 11 December 2021

Everyone thought I was rather a strange child

Convenience Store Woman Convenience Store Woman is about Miss Furukura. "Everyone thought I was a rather strange child", she says, and it was only when she started working at a convenience store and was trained to deal with customers that she was able "to accomplish a normal facial expression and manner of speech." Now in her mid-30s, unmarried with no boyfriend, she's worked part-time in the same store for the past 18 years or so. Following her sister's advice on how to appear "normal", she's happy.

The edition that I read included an essay by author Sayaka Murata entitled A Love Letter to the Convenience Store, and the tale is indeed a sort of romance between Furukura and the store. In the opening pages the character describes in fascinating detail how the sounds of the convenience store enable her to anticipate customer needs. She makes odd comments that set you wondering what, if anything, has happened to make her the way she is.

Although Furukura is content, there's a sadness to her situation. She realises that her sister is "happier rather thinking [Furukura] is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine". When Shiraha, a young man who rejects the expectations of society, joins the team, Furukura's ordered life is thrown into disarray. However, what is chaos for Furukura is conformity for her co-workers, and their interaction with her changes. Unfortunately "it felt like [they'd] downgraded me from store worker to female of the human species".

In addition to this idea of societal norms, the book raises questions about sexlessness and celibacy, which brings into question the translation of its title. In Japanese it is Convenience Store Person, but in English it has become Convenience Store Woman. I wonder why this decision was made, because it doesn't really tally with those themes.

Furukura reminded me of Aroon St Charles in Good Behaviour, or Eleanor Oliphant in Gail Honeyman's book. They are women who function within society and accept its mores but either can't or won't conform. Some might describe them as nerds or geeks, characters who take people at their word and don't understand sarcasm or "banter".

Furukura has found her place in society, or rather a small space where she fits without having to compromise. As she says, "I am one of those cogs, going round and round. I have become a functioning part of the world", and this makes her happy, whatever other people think of her.