Friday, 30 August 2019

A wicked bestiary

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Wicked Bestiary Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is both the title of David Sedaris's book and one of its animal tales. Few humans appear in the stories, and when they do, it's usually as a harbinger of pain or death for the creature concerned. Many of the tales are humorous, even more are dark, but then the habits of birds, animals, reptiles and amphibians can be pretty disgusting when judged against those of humans.

For humour, I enjoyed The Cat and the Baboon. The Toad, The Turtle, and the Duck made me feel uncomfortable, and The Crow and the Lamb was pure horror. The Vigilant Rabbit got what he deserved, but for sheer ridiculous entertainment, The Grieving Owl topped them all.

The book's subtitle, A Wicked Bestiary, indicates that the stories are fables, but they're more like fairy tales. Do we still need lessons in morality as adults? People follow the rules and yet horrible things happen. Humans do nasty things for the sake of survival. As the Crow says, "I have to do what I have to do."

Monday, 26 August 2019

Double standards and the end of the world

On the Beach We're all going to die but most of us don't know when, unlike the characters in Nevil Shute's book On the Beach.

The story takes place in 1963, around five years after the book was written. A nuclear war that started by mistake and lasted thirty seven days has wiped out all human life in the Northern Hemisphere. As the world tilts on its axis, the deadly fallout is slowly carried into the Southern Hemisphere, and in Melbourne, the scientists calculate that there is up to 9 months left before residents of the city will start to die from radiation sickness. The story describes how some residents prepare for death.

By far the best character is Moira, a young woman who, at the beginning of the book is biding her time drinking double brandies and partying. She meets the rather dull and upstanding American submarine commander, Dwight Towers, and as their platonic relationship develops, she follows his example and prepares for the end of days by doing something useful. The men find dignity through their work, and get to go on dangerous submarine scouting missions. In their spare time they drive fast cars. Moira however goes in for mending Dwight's clothes and learning shorthand and typing. Well, the book was written in the 1950s, and the author was rather middle-class.

The minor character Douglas Froude also deserves a mention. He's great-uncle to John Osborne, the scientific officer. As a member of the Pastoral Club Froude discovers "over three thousand bottles of vintage port still left in the cellars," and when asked what he's going to do about it, he says there's only one thing to do, "Drink it, my boy, drink it - every drop." Here again, it's perfectly acceptable for the old goat to drink himself into a stupor, whereas Moira "drinks too much. Still, she does it on brandy they tell me, so that makes a difference."

On the Beach very much reflects the decade in which it was written. If you can get over that, it's a great premise. Initially one might find it ridiculous to imagine that in the face of certain death most people would just continue to go about their daily lives, but by the end, one wonders if that might actually be the best thing to do.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Growing wealth, endless greed

The Privileges Jonathan Dee's The Privileges is less a story, more a character study of a family. It's divided into four parts. In part one, we join Adam Morey and his fiancee Cynthia on their wedding day. Six years later, in part two, the couple have two small children, April and Jonas. By part three, the children are teenagers, and in the fourth section April and Jonas are in their early twenties.

The narrative explores Adam and Cynthia's growing wealth and endless greed. Even when "there was enough for them to live on for the rest of their lives," Adam still thought of money only in terms "of how it might be used to make more money." Adam has no qualms about boosting his funds by insider trading, and Cynthia is often contemptuous of anyone outside her close family, such as "those moms she despised, the ones you made small talk with while you waited for your kid." The fortune they amassed didn't make their children happy. April was "scared of poor people" and had no idea how to fill her days other than by getting wasted on drugs and alcohol. Jonas, whose "first minute of brain activity after waking generated so much anxiety" found some meaning in music and in studying art, but is unable to renounce his privilege, agreeing to let his mother "send the jet for him so he could at least spend a week at home."

The Morey family is overwhelmingly isolated and self-absorbed. They may be involved in charitable giving, but their relentless pursuit of wealth, their sense of privilege and how they treat others make them morally corrupt. It reminded me of Thackeray's Vanity Fair with its subtitle "A Novel without a Hero. There are no heroes in Jonathan Dee's book either.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

A man who had given his best years to puddings

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin David Nobbs's Reggie Perrin is "a man who had given his best years to puddings," and wonders in his mid-forties what the point of it all has been. His relationship with his wife has become stale and he has no enthusiasm for his job. What is he to do?

Having watched The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin on TV in the 1970s and in 2009, I knew exactly what Reggie would do, but I wanted to see if there were differences between the book and the adaptation.

The story is the same, but the book is darker without the canned laughter track, and its sex scenes are more explicit, tho' not gratuitous. Its style of writing is straight-forward, with plenty of dialogue, as if it was written with the intention of adapting it. David Nobbs's descriptions are imaginative, such as a motorcycle's "tactless virility", a sunset "to set shepherds dancing in ecstasy", waiters with "sound-proof shoes and double-glazed eyes", and "good grey nonconformist Sunday rain". I remember the TV series to be mostly about Reggie's mid-life crisis and how he questioned his success and happiness, but the book raises issues about how isolated we can become in our own lives and communities, and what little we know about the people we are closest to.

Overall it's a good story peopled with funny characters, plenty of humour and memories of 1970s Britain.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

What it meant to be a girl

The Seraphim Room The Seraphim Room by Edith Olivier is a story driven by the character of Mr Chilvester, twice widowed, and living with his two daughters: the invalid Lilian, and the teenage Emily. The lease on their home passes through the male line, and Mr Chilvester, knowing that "the name of the family would die with him," transfers all his passion into his house.

The story is set shortly after 1928 and the passing of the "Flappers' Vote." It relates what happens when the intransigence of Mr Chilvester comes up against Emily's romantic aspirations and the youthful exuberance of the young architect, Christopher Honeythorne. Chilvester is an old-fashioned Victorian patriarch, whereas Honeythorne shows all the spirit and modernism of the Roaring Twenties. Initially Chilvester appears quite comical, but when his authority is threatened the darkness of his character is revealed.

Edith Olivier's writing style is rather old-fashioned and reflects the class and period of the subject matter. The characters' actions may seem far-fetched, but there are still plenty of parents alive today whose religion or upbringing have taught them, like Chilvester, to think that "Lillian, being only a girl, meant nothing."

Sunday, 28 July 2019

David or Donny?

Kill the Boy Band First there was "Sinatramania", then there was Elvis, and in the 60s it was The Beatles. When I was ten years old, I passionately defended David Cassidy and vilified Donny Osmond. The Bay City Rollers, Bros, Take That; Goldy Moldavsky's book, Kill the Boy Band, will speak to anyone who has had a teenage crush on an inaccessible, world-famous popstar.

The story begins in a hotel suite, where Rupert P., member of The Ruperts, is tied to a chair with a pair of tights. Four Strepurs, as fans of the band call themselves, are discussing what to do, and one of them, a self-confessed liar who is in therapy, narrates the story.

Labeled as a YA book, it's a very easy read, written in a casual and chatty style, with a lot of humour. There's a dark side too, raising questions about obsession, friendship and mental health. I found myself, early on, thinking if I would be chuckling quite so much if it were a bunch of teenage lads who had captured a female pop star.

You have to suspend disbelief at a couple of plot points, but overall it's a fast-moving, entertaining who-dunnit mystery.

As for David or Donny, you be the judge:

Friday, 26 July 2019

My return caused only confusion and uneasiness

Travels with Charley: In Search of America Towards the end of his life, John Steinbeck took a road trip across America, "determined to look again, to try to rediscover this monster land." He converts a truck into a mobile home he calls Rocinante, and sets off with only his aged French poodle, Charley, for company.

Steinbeck's relationship with Charley forms the major part of the book's charm. The author's love for his dog shines through, and Charley's scenes are written with a great deal of humour.

What Steinbeck finds along the way are "the mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use," and he muses on "the wild and reckless exuberance of our production." He asserts that "a beard is the one thing a woman cannot do better than a man, or if she can her success is assured only in a circus," and questions what drives "millions of armed American males to forests and hills every autumn,", thinking that "somehow the hunting process has to do with masculinity, but I don't quite know how."

The later parts of the book were the most engaging. Steinbeck visits his native Salinas, California, where his emigrant status has made him a stranger:
the "town had grown and changed and my friend along with it. Now returning, as changed to my friend as my town was to me, I distorted his picture, muddied his memory. When I went away I had died, and so became fixed and unchangeable. My return caused only confusion and uneasiness. Although they could not say it, my old friends wanted me gone so that I could take my proper place in the pattern of remembrance -- and I wanted to go for the same reason."

Steinbeck's road then leads through Texas, his wife's state, and New Orleans, where Ruby Bridges was making history as the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school. After this, he made his way back to New York, tired of traveling, glad to return home.