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

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.

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.